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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jay Leno has nearly two years left on the clock at "The Tonight Show" on NBC, but rival networks and at least one TV studio are said to be quietly, unofficially, courting the comedian with offers to keep him on the late-night circuit.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that ABC and Fox both have discreetly let Leno know they are eager to formally engage him in talks about moving to their networks once the negotiating window in his NBC contract opens in late 2009.
And Sony Pictures Television has indirectly approached Leno through intermediaries about possibly giving him his own nationally syndicated show, and ownership of a second show, in a deal that would make him the highest-paid U.S. host on late-night TV, the Times said.
Fox, a part of News Corp., and Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC declined comment on the reports, as did Sony Corp.'s Sony Pictures Television.
NBC, a unit of General Electric Co.'s media division NBC Universal also declined comment, other than to say that the network was sticking with plans for Leno to step down as "Tonight Show" host sometime before the end of next year.
The network announced in September of 2004 that Leno, who took over as "Tonight Show" host in 1992 after Johnny Carson retired, would be succeeded in 2009 by Conan O'Brien, who currently hosts NBC's "Late Night" show following Leno.
Since then, NBC executives have repeatedly said they are looking at various options for keeping Leno in the network fold, possibly even by moving him to prime time.
If NBC changes its mind and opts to keep Leno installed at "The Tonight Show" beyond 2009, the network would reportedly owe O'Brien a penalty fee of about $40 million.
Leno, who remains television's top-rated late-night comic, said during a recent guest spot on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" show that his 2009 exit was certain but has not spoken publicly about his post-"Tonight Show" intentions.
NBC's orchestration of a five-year transition from Leno to O'Brien was aimed in part at protecting the value of "The Tonight Show" franchise, an asset that then reaped more than $13 million in weekly advertising revenues.
The network wanted to avoid the acrimony and uncertainty that surrounded Leno's replacement of Carson, when his choice over NBC's then-"Late Night" host David Letterman sparked a very public, bitter feud.
Letterman ended up defecting the following year to CBS, where he went head-to-head against Leno as host of his own "Late Show" and initially beat Leno in the ratings.
Leno ultimately prevailed in the ratings war but is reported to earn less than Letterman -- about $25 million a year compared with more than $30 million for his rival.
According to the Times, Sony would offer Leno a deal that would bump his annual earnings to at least $40 million, give him ownership of his show and a companion late-late program that follows his own (similar to Letterman's situation).
Leno would even get a new theater on the Sony lot with his name on it and a financial stake in Sony music artists who appear on his show, the Times reported.
Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb