Saturday, July 12, 2008

Handicapping the Leno sweepstakes

By Rick Morris

This week's Entertainment Weekly explores the circumstances surrounding the upcoming Jay Leno jockeying among various networks and syndication entities. To recap briefly: in 2004, Leno announced that he would be retiring and handing over "The Tonight Show" in 2009 to Conan O'Brien. Faced with potentially losing O'Brien to a competing network, NBC was more than happy to implement this plan and rumors spread quickly that Leno did not jump, but was pushed. Given that Leno does not plan to completely retire -- he will certainly be maintaining, and perhaps expanding, his schedule of stand-up comedy traveling -- suspicions that Leno plans another high-profile job are well-founded.

By the time this is all said and done, the story will probably rival the circus of the early 1990s, when late-night legend Johnny Carson relinquished the "Tonight" throne. At that time, Carson too was thought to have been at least nudged out the door; Leno's ruthless operative Helen Kushnick (played to devastating effect by Kathy Bates in the awesome movie "The Late Shift," which dramatized the Carson succession process) took it upon herself to try to get Carson out of the way and keep David Letterman from moving up one hour on the schedule at NBC. Having followed the tale in the media as it unfolded at that time and having greatly enjoyed "Shift," I didn't think that late-night TV would ever see another saga quite like that one. But notwithstanding the segmentation that has materialized from an ever-increasing number of cable television channels, the late-night universe apparently remains lucrative enough that big-time TV potentates want somebody they consider to be a legitimate franchise player.

And Leno, despite a comic persona that Entertainment Weekly correctly notes does not cater to television's ever-present desire for the young and the fresh, is perceived by these executives potentially as one of the biggest cash cows in TV even into the future. A battle with Letterman that ensued when "The Late Show" debuted on CBS in 1993 was once close, but is now in the process of being decisively won by Leno for the 13th consecutive year. Leno's farewell tour will begin in earnest in a few months, making a 14th straight victory inevitable. Truly, he will have gone out on top -- and this admission comes from someone who isn't quite in tune with his older sense of humor.

So where does he end up when the succession plan is set to take effect next year? The FDH Lounge handicaps the odds ...

4-1: Staying in the NBC Universal television family. NBC will pull out all the stops to continue utilizing Leno in either a singular role or a multitude of roles across channels. With several cable channels that could benefit from his presence (including USA and Bravo) and NBC potentially dangling a 10 PM talk show that could air on the big network a few nights a week, the possibility of hanging around the present environs in a kind of Tom Brokaw Elder Statesman role could appeal greatly to him. Also, Leno cannot legally entertain any other offers before November 2009 and can't move anywhere until the next year, so any acceptance of another job would have to wait until well after his final program. Hence, unless he accepts an offer to stay put before the farewell tour commences, he will leave under a cloud of uncertainty and intrigue as to what his next move will be -- something that cannot thrill NBC.

6-1: Moving to ABC for a three-way battle with O'Brien and Letterman. ABC came hard after Letterman back in 2002, demonstrating that they would jettison "Nightline" under the right circumstances. They would risk offending their current 12 PM host, Jimmy Kimmel, who they have tried very hard to push as a top late-night entity in his own right, but Kimmel would then become the heir to a potential empire at 11:30 PM if Leno, approaching his 60s, would retire for real in a few years. Smelling blood in the water with NBC losing the reigning ratings king and CBS locked into Letterman until at least 2010, Disney can be expected to push hard to make a deal happen.

8-1: Syndicating a show through Sony or Tribune. Syndication is not looked upon as a very viable option by many in television, owing to the fact that Arsenio Hall's program was eventually outgunned by his network rivals in 1994. If Leno accepts this option, he moves off of most network-affiliated local stations (and therefore moves off most of the highest-rated local stations), but he would own a substantial piece of the pie and could earn the rights to produce other shows. More than almost any other option, it has substantial pros and cons.

10-1: Moving to CBS to take over for Letterman. Dave has had well-known health issues and has stated that he doesn't see himself in the "Late Night" chair for the rest of his life. CBS, operating under the assumption that if you can't beat them, you should ask them to join you, might try to finagle Leno in that chair with or without Letterman's consent to move on peacefully. Such a move, particularly if it were to happen over Letterman's objections, would be particularly ironic -- not merely because Leno beat him out for "Tonight" back in 1991, but because Letterman paved the way for years of ratings defeats at Leno's hands by watering down his act and being less daring at 11:30 as an alleged means of competing with Leno. Given a choice between a legitimate practitioner of middle-aged and older humor (Leno) and someone who cast aside his wild 12:30 humor to try to succeed in a more mainstream time slot (Letterman), CBS may opt for the original and not the imitator.

15-1: Staying at "The Tonight Show." NBC would have to pay O'Brien a $40 million penalty for taking the job back and they'd have to resolve a separate issue of Jimmy Fallon being slated to replace O'Brien at 12:30, but this option is not completely impossible. Five years ago, O'Brien was perceived as the rising star at NBC late-night, but as the time for the switch draws nearer, some executives may be wondering if they should just go ahead and risk the embarrassment of reneging on the changeover. This option is unlikely, but far from impossible.

20-1: Moving to FOX to do a show at 11 PM. The legacy of FOX late-night failures from the early days of the network, from Chevy Chase to Joan Rivers, lives on. The notion of having to follow the late local news a half hour earlier (and competing with other local news programs, a not-inconsiderable variable for Leno's demographic) makes the vast amount of money that Rupert Murdoch could throw something of a non-factor to a man who already has more money than he could ever spend.

30-1: Moving to CNN to take over for Larry King in 2010. Rumors that Leno would inherit King's show have lived on for years, but it's not a great fit. No matter the desperation of CNN executives, Leno could surely earn a bigger check elsewhere, and a show that doesn't leave room for his beloved monologue doesn't seem a great fit for him.

No comments: