A jilted Jay could wake up latenight

JAY LENO made news last week — having foolishly (or perhaps arrogantly) booked California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on “The Tonight Show” weeks before the election, leaving Democratic challenger Phil Angelides pleading for equal time — but it’s nothing compared with the ruckus the seemingly genial latenight host could trigger a few years from now.

Determined not to lose another key piece of manpower, NBC anointed Conan O’Brien as Leno’s replacement two years ago — a switch that isn’t destined to take effect until 2009. Network officials elbowed Leno toward the decision early by appealing to his nice-guy persona, the implication being he didn’t want to be the bad guy in another succession battle with a “Late Night” star — then David Letterman, now O’Brien — that critics and the intelligentsia generally admire more than him.

Leno acted the good soldier at the time, joking that he’ll be 59 by then and looks forward to treating his wife to dinner before turning 60. O’Brien, among others, applauded his graciousness. Yet in the period since, speculation has brewed that the host was wounded by NBC prodding him toward the door and is biding his time until his contract expires, at which point the real fun begins.

Given the shortage of personalities capable of enduring the daily grind, Leno could dock in any number of ports should he wish to continue hosting a latenight show. And while he has given no indication of a desire to do so, the smart money says that a comic who stacks 150 corporate and club dates on top of his “Tonight” chores won’t be content to simply go headline at Caesars Palace.

IN A SENSE, then, NBC didn’t so much solve its latenight problem as postpone it, buying several years of serenity and profits before the next potential storm. Some have even suggested that whoever’s in charge might get cold feet and opt to keep Leno where he is, biting the bullet on an eight-figure penalty payment to O’Brien, who would at that point surely set up shop elsewhere himself.

Far-fetched as that sounds, it’s not out of the question. Even O’Brien aficionados must concede there’s no guarantee he’ll bring the same broad appeal to the 11:30 hour Leno has enjoyed; indeed, given Letterman’s long-standing second-place status — “Tonight” is averaging 5.7 million viewers this season, to “Late Show’s” 4.1 million — there’s reason to believe O’Brien would attract a narrower niche than the current occupant.

For his part, Leno has gone into radio silence, eschewing media requests, which is telling. His accessibility and commitment to being a team player, after all, has always defined him in sharp contrast to Letterman, who behaves like the weird old genius in the castle, shunning interviews while his producers stand guard at the drawbridge.

Sources who know Leno well say he won’t do anything to undermine NBC or add to the awkwardness of the situation. That said, his occasional jokes at NBC’s expense seem a bit more pointed these days, from referencing the network’s ratings woes to mocking its scheduling of “Friday Night Lights” on Tuesdays.

LENO’S PUBLIC STANCE has always been that the competition with Letterman is a game for the media, about two rich guys with no reason to complain. He has described his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality as “Write joke. Tell joke. Collect check.”

NBC declined comment about the matter, which is frankly what I’d do under the circumstances. This is all years away from becoming a front-burner matter, though unlike the Bush administration and Iraq, members of NBC’s current brain trust doubtless hope and expect to still be in office come 2009, meaning they can’t count on leaving the mess for someone else to clean up.

Ultimately, NBC’s goal of neatly settling its latenight future is a no-win scenario unless Leno triumphantly rides into the sunset after 17 years at “The Tonight Show” helm — which could still happen, his workhorse history and uncharacteristically pursed lips notwithstanding. Whatever his choice, though, Leno clearly holds all the cards, and while the central players will all wind up in the chips, here’s a guess few of them will be completely happy once the dealing’s done.

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