HBO could pull plug on Vegas event next year

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … maybe.

The Comedy Festival hits Vegas’ Caesars Palace Wednesday for a third roll of the dice, but prospects for a return engagement in 2008 remain a crap shoot.

“The only thing we know for sure is we’re going to do it this year,” says Michael Lombardo, programming group and West Coast operations prexy for HBO, which launched the fest three years ago in partnership with AEG Live. “We have yet to make a commitment going forward.”

The pay cabler was an ambitious yukfest backer under former chairman Chris Albrecht. But in the wake of Albrecht’s ankling last spring, HBO has begun to re-think that strategy — it announced several months ago that it has no plans to continue its more exclusive-to-industry Aspen Comedy Festival.

Meanwhile, Bob Crestani, the man responsible for orchestrating both comedy festivals for HBO, will ankle following the conclusion of the Las Vegas event.

“One reason we got out of Aspen was we couldn’t figure out what the business justification was for continuing that,” Lombardo says. “I think we have the same issues with Las Vegas. I don’t know what the future of the fest business is for us. We haven’t decided one way or another.”

If HBO is ambivalent regarding the future of the Vegas fest — which will be headlined this year with Friday and Saturday-night appearances by Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock — AEG Live is more determined to maintain the status quo.

With its parent company, AEG, currently in partnership with Caesars owner Harrah’s on the development of a 20,000-seat arena in Las Vegas, John Meglen, co-CEO and president of AEG Live/Concerts West — the content arm of the operation — says, “It’s very important to us that we’re helping Harrah’s with their entertainment programming.”

With Albrecht, and perhaps HBO, stepping aside from what he calls “torch-carrying” roles at the Comedy Festival, Meglen predicts fest sponsor TBS — led by Turner Entertainment Networks prexy Steve Koonin — will play a greater role in the event going forward.

“One of the things I believe will change is that we’ll see an increased participation by TBS and Steve Koonin,” Meglen says. “We’re kind of in the middle of seeing what that means. Right now, they’re a very big financial supporter of the festival, they are a key content provider for the festival. … In a way, it’s kind of appropriate for Steve Koonin to pick up a bit of the torch-carrying when it comes to comedy.”

Lombardo notes that TBS has been increasingly active on the fest programming end — at this year’s event, the cabler will tape, and later broadcast, shows starring Ellen DeGeneres and Frank Caliendo, as well as a “next-generation” cast of Blue Collar Comedy aspirants.

“They (TBS) have found that the festival is a good tool for them in terms of attracting sponsors,” Lombardo notes. “We’re not in the same business, so it doesn’t have the same value for us.”

For his part, however, Koonin isn’t ready to accept the fest “torch” — at least not publicly — releasing only the following statement through a network publicist: “We are in talks with all parties and are very interested in keeping and growing this great festival. Hopefully we will have something to announce in the very near future.”

While all participants remain noncommittal regarding the future of the festival, Lombardo notes that — unlike Aspen — the event isn’t a money-loser.

“I do think the reality of Las Vegas that we have found is that we can at least break even and see a little bit of money,” he says. “The question is, where does it go from here?”

TIP SHEET

What: The Comedy Festival

When: Wednesday thru Saturday

Where: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

Wattage: Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Engvall, Eddie Izzard, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Wanda Sykes

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