NBC's critics were accusing network brass of speaking out of both sides of their mouths Thursday as the tumult over their late-night programming decisions grew louder. On the one hand, NBC Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol supported the move by his colleague, NBC CEO Jeff Zucker, to return Jay Leno to his former time slot at 11 35 p.m. and blamed Conan O'Brien for the mess. In an interview with today's (Friday) New York Times , Ebersol remarked, "What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan." As for O'Brien's remarks that his ratings suffered because of the dismal lead-in provided by Leno, Ebersol commented that it was "chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn't beat in the ratings." He pointed out that even when Leno had weak lead-ins, he managed to beat David Letterman in the ratings. O'Brien, he insisted, "was just stubborn about not being willing to broaden the appeal of his show." (Ebersol was involved in a similar controversy in 1989 when, as a news executive, he removed Jane Pauley from the Today show and replaced her with Deborah Norville.) At the same time, NBC's publicity department issued a news release boasting, "NBC's The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien has topped all broadcast and cable competition in the key late-night demographic of adults 18-49 for the week of January 4-8. ... Conan has finished #1 or tied for #1 among broadcast networks in adult 18-49 rating for nine of the last 11 weeks." Leno took note of O'Brien's ratings surge in his monologue Thursday night. "With all the controversy going on here at NBC, actually The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien 's ratings have gone up. So [apparently addressing O'Brien], you're welcome." Viewers may be forsaking David Letterman to watch O'Brien's final days as host of the Tonight show, but Letterman himself continues to defy the unwritten rule that broadcasters should never mention the competition. Addressing his audience Thursday night, he asked, "Do you folks know what's going on with NBC and the trouble they're having with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. Are you aware? You heard about that? Are you getting tired of hearing about it? Me neither."