Tuesday, January 22, 2008

the future of late night comedy TV

Leno, Letterman and O'Brien...What does the future hold for them?

Tom Dorsey speculates on the possibilities in the C-J...

Jay Leno apparently doesn't want to go quietly into that good night.

Leno, who announced three years ago that he would step aside in 2009 to let Conan O'Brien take over the "Tonight Show" host chair, may be having second thoughts, according to the Los Angeles Times.

That's not so surprising if you know much about Leno, who has been No. 1 in late-night ratings for years. He's got a lifetime membership in the workaholics club....He's not a rocking-chair sort of fellow, and just playing golf or tinkering with his classic cars and motorcycles would probably drive him batty a week into retirement....

Leno will only be 59 when the network gives him the gold watch....he would be giving up the job 15 years earlier than Johnny Carson did.

So why does NBC want Leno, who has topped the late-night ratings race for years, to go?

Apparently because O'Brien, 44, has a younger audience than Leno, 57. Younger is always better in television, although CBS is evidently not as concerned about the age of its late-night host. David Letterman, 60, has a deal with that network through 2010. Maybe the Peacock Network just wants someone with a longer-term future, so this is where you get off, Jay.

Well, maybe not. What are his options if he is shown the door? There's good reason to believe that Fox and maybe ABC would be standing on the other side with a write-your-own-contract deal in hand. CNN reportedly wants Leno to replace Larry King.

ABC and Fox have dearly wanted a late-night host to compete with Leno and Letterman for years. Signing Leno would give them a big built-in viewership. No waiting around to build an audience.

To give O'Brien a running start, Leno's contract keeps him off the air for six months after he leaves NBC, but no one is going to forget Leno in six months. All this seems to be finally dawning on NBC executives.

They still want Leno to go, but not to the competition, where he would take his loyal fans with him and maybe make O'Brien a distant No. 2. So now NBC is reportedly saying job No. 1 is to keep Leno in the family.

But what are they going to offer him, a few specials a year? Leno needs to get up every morning and go to work and be on the tube every night. Of course, NBC could back off and tell O'Brien his time hasn't come yet and to keep cooling his heels in the waiting room.

But O'Brien wasn't born yesterday. Neither was his agent. He's got a contract that says if Leno doesn't give up the "Tonight" show couch, NBC has to pay him a $40 million penalty, according to Variety. O'Brien could retire on that.

If all this sounds vaguely like déjà vu, it's probably because you can recall the debacle NBC got into over who would be Carson's replacement in the early '90s.

Letterman was the late-late guy then, and he thought he had the job for sure until NBC named Leno. Letterman slammed the door on his way out to CBS. O'Brien could do the same thing, and Fox would probably create a late-night spot for him every night, maybe even at 11 to get a jump on the competition.

Of course, Leno, O'Brien and NBC executives are all declining to comment on any of this conjecture....


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