LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Don’t pity Jay Leno.
The host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” is losing his home of 17 years in 2009, but Leno finds himself in an enviable position. Still packing the ratings punch that delivers the lion’s share of NBC’s estimated $300 million in annual late-night revenue, the 58-year-old comic is being wooed by a host of suitors. ABC, Fox, Sony and even CNN have been reported trying to lure Leno, and he won’t come cheap: NBC pays him $27 million per year.
Little did the Peacock know back in 2004 when then-NBC Universal TV president Jeff Zucker guaranteed Conan O’Brien that he would take Leno’s job five years later that the succession would turn late-night on its ear.
It’s a situation unthinkable back in the 1992-93 season, when an earlier round of late-night wars deposited Leno in Johnny Carson’s chair instead of David Letterman, whose “Late Show” on CBS has trailed the “Tonight” audience.
With Leno’s future fast becoming the industry’s favorite guessing game, The Hollywood Reporter weighs his options (in descending order of likelihood) and forecasts how each would impact late-night.
And we won’t even take a percentage.
Option 1: Leno takes ABC’s 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. time slot occupied by “Nightline” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
ABC is Leno’s most likely destination. He could compete directly with Letterman and O’Brien with a solid network promotional platform behind him.
ABC would have to kill the venerable “Nightline,” however, a move that drew strong criticism six years ago when the Alphabet tried to woo Letterman. That said, the ad revenue it would gain from moving to entertainment in the time period would more than offset the short-term backlash.
A thornier matter is how bringing in Leno would sit with Kimmel, who has improved his ratings lately and recently renewed his show through 2010. “Live” would move back 30 minutes to 12:30 a.m. If he perceives the shift as a demotion, it could alienate Kimmel enough to go to Fox, whose demographics many consider a better fit for the comedian.
However, Leno on ABC could benefit Kimmel, providing a stronger lead-in than the current “Nightline” audience does. Kimmel would almost certainly receive added compensation for becoming ABC’s second-string host. But he could also find himself in a newly competitive time period shared by CBS’ Craig Ferguson, who has proved to be a worthy adversary to O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon, who will step into O’Brien’s slot.
Option 2: Leno launches a show on Fox at 11 or 11:30 p.m.
The top-rated late-night host could give the top-rated network its best shot to expand its primetime rule to late-night. But Fox doesn’t program late-night, so it would face an additional challenge of getting the time back from its stations, which air off-net series or more local news after their 10-11 p.m. newscasts.
While no formal discussions have taken place, about two-thirds of the Fox stations likely would be on board for an 11 p.m. show fronted by Leno and almost all would welcome an 11:30 p.m. broadcast.
However, Fox never has been able to build a late-night weekday franchise (remember Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers?). Plus, the show would be far removed from Fox’s 10 p.m. primetime cutoff.
Fox’s younger-skewing reality shows are not a good demo fit for Leno, but Rupert Murdoch might make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Option 3: Sony Pictures TV puts Leno in syndication.
Arsenio Hall proved in the 1990s that syndication was a viable route to late-night. And though Magic Johnson later stumbled, there’s enough track record for Sony to make a go of it with Leno, who according to the New York Times has been wooed through intermediaries with the richest salary among late-night hosts, including an ownership stake in the show.
However, Leno apparently enjoys having the support system of a major broadcast network, and a syndication deal would not likely provide the head-to-head battle with O’Brien and Letterman.
Option 4: Leno stays put on NBC . . . somehow.
NBC is offering Leno every other programming variation under the sun to stay — morning shows, afternoon shows, primetime specials. “We’ve laid out the whole menu of possibilities in different dayparts to him,” one NBC insider says.
There are apparent incentives for keeping Leno in the NBC family. Not only would it prevent the host from competing against O’Brien, but it also would provide an ace in the hole should “Tonight” take a hard ratings fall under O’Brien — not entirely unlike how NBC kept Tom Brokaw in the mix after he left the anchor chair. NBC insiders balk at the notion of yet another “Tonight” host shake-up, however, emphasizing that the network gave Leno and O’Brien years to grow into their respective roles.
For the time being, the network will honor its agreement with O’Brien — and not just because of the oft-quoted $40 million penalty payment that would result from jettisoning his deal. Breaking its commitment to O’Brien would be a PR nightmare for NBC, and the network’s ad sales department believes selling O’Brien’s more youthful demos is the best bet for the future.
“‘The Tonight Show’ is a strong enough franchise and I think Conan is very well known and very talented,” Chris Geraci of New York-based media buyer OMD says. “We haven’t noticed any reduction in advertiser interest.”
Option 5: Leno cools his heels for a year and re-emerges on CBS in 2010.
Retaining Letterman allows CBS to boast a stable late-night lineup to advertisers while competitors manage the post-Leno shake-up. But Letterman’s contract expires in 2010, which isn’t as far off as it might seem (especially if you’re his agents at
If Letterman asks to renew his contract for much more than the $30-odd million a year he’s already making, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves could at the very least play up the possibility of luring Leno. It’s also possible Letterman might not want to continue the nightly grind next year, which would open up the slot for a Leno landing.
Option 6: Leno joins Larry King as a CNN host.
Leno already has surfaced on various lists of replacements for King, whose recent contract renewal through 2010 has done little to scotch rumors that CNN is searching for his successor. The cabler has publicly denied this scenario, just as it did when rumors surfaced that King would be replaced by Katie Couric or Ryan Seacrest.
The notion of Leno joining a news network is a stretch: He does have Q&A experience with A-listers of all types, but his heart is in his monologue, which isn’t likely to be a natural fit at CNN.
Option 7: Leno will retire to full-time stand-up in 2010.
The late-night landscape is far different now than it was in the early 1990s, the last time the “Tonight Show” chair changed occupants. Far fewer people fall asleep to the “Tonight” monologue than they used to, not only because of declining viewership but also because of more choices in late-night, including the Web. And don’t forget the strong competition from cable, where Adult Swim and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” are siphoning off younger viewers.
Which might signal to Leno that it is time to hang up his spurs and tend to his car collection while turning his stand-up side gigs into a full-time career.
The real shame of the matter is that those who know Leno best say his preferred option remains the only job he’s destined to lose.
“‘The Tonight Show’ is ‘The Tonight Show,”‘ one source says. “This is all Jay has ever wanted.”