LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - ABC's chief programming executive said on Wednesday that his network would welcome Jay Leno if rival U.S. broadcaster NBC fails to find a new job for the comedian when he retires next year as host of "The Tonight Show."
ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson made the public overture to Leno -- becoming the first top U.S. network executive to do so -- before a gathering of television critics in Beverly Hills.
The entreaty began when ABC's incumbent late-night star, comedian Jimmy Kimmel, stood in the audience during McPherson's question-and-answer session with critics and TV journalists and posed a series of questions, acting as a reporter.
His first question was about persistent media reports that ABC has been quietly courting Leno, who still dominates late-night TV ratings, before the negotiating window on his NBC contract opens in late 2009.
"I can't believe they are going to let this guy go at the top of his game," McPherson said of Leno. "If that happens, I guess we'll look at it and we will talk. And Jimmy will be involved in those discussions, and that will be that."
"Jimmy Kimmel Live!" currently occupies second half of the hourlong 11:30 p.m.-to-12:30 a.m. time slot that Leno presumably would take over if he came to ABC to host that network's flagship late-night show. The first half hour is now filled by the news program "Nightline."
NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., took the TV industry by surprise in 2004 by announcing five years in advance that Leno would step down as "Tonight Show" host in 2009 and would be replaced by Conan O'Brien, whose own NBC show now airs an hour later.
"Saturday Night Live" veteran Jimmy Fallon was named in May as O'Brien's successor to host NBC's "Late Night" show.
The "Tonight Show" remains a key asset for NBC, delivering the bulk of the estimated $300 million of the network's annual late-night TV revenue, according to a recent story in The Hollywood Reporter.
Leno, 58, is said to be privately unhappy about his planned departure, and NBC executives have said they are still looking at various options for keeping Leno in the NBC fold, including a possible move to prime-time TV.
ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co., is widely seen as Leno's most likely destination if he leaves NBC altogether. Other entities said to be discreetly courting Leno include the Fox network and Sony Pictures Television .
NBC's transition plan was aimed at avoiding the acrimony and uncertainty that surrounded Leno's replacement of Johnny Carson when his selection as the new "Tonight Show" host in 1992 sparked a bitter public feud with then-"Late Night" host David Letterman.
Letterman ended up defecting the following year to CBS, where he has gone head-to-head against Leno ever since as host of his own "Late Show." O'Brien replaced Letterman on NBC.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte