Network braces for latenight shift

Throughout his ascent at NBC Universal, CEO Jeff Zucker has shown a knack for making the best of bad situations, cobbling together short-term fixes and sorting out consequences later.

With the latenight handoff from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien, however, NBC has seemingly taken that strategy as far as the network can — facing a scenario where two guys want the same job with no way to split it between them, mirroring the laborious choice between Leno and David Letterman that NBC had to tackle in 1991.

NBC bought itself five years of harmony by announcing in September 2004 that O’Brien would succeed Leno well into 2009. At the time, Leno graciously said the switch would come after 17 years hosting “The Tonight Show,” and that he “felt the timing was right to plan for my successor.”

The handoff that NBC managed to postpone is now fast approaching. Jimmy Fallon was recently named to succeed O’Brien when he slides into the 11:30 p.m. slot. The network is renovating a venue for O’Brien’s relocation to the West Coast.

And eager suitors are circling Leno, with offers that will surely improve on the reported $27 million the host already pockets annually for his “Tonight” duties.

Since announcing he would step aside, it has become clear that while Leno played the loyal company man, his heart wasn’t in it. Having lived through an earlier awkward skirmish for control of “Tonight,” he didn’t want to be cast as the heavy once again by denying the promotion to O’Brien, who surely would have left NBC. After all, Leno still bore scars from blocking another critical darling — David Letterman — from attaining the coveted “Tonight” prize that Johnny Carson practically bequeathed to him.

Leno agreed to the transition, but Zucker’s plan was obvious. If Leno was upset, that was an issue the network wouldn’t need to resolve for another five years — after hundreds of millions of dollars more in latenight profits.

When it comes to kicking headaches down the road, Zucker had been down this path before. Upon arriving at NBC Entertainment from the “Today” show, he pursued temporary measures to bolster the network’s Thursday “Must-See TV” lineup, which was weakened by a shortage of fresh comedy hits.

The exec introduced what he dubbed “super-sizing,” expanding series such as “Friends” and “Frasier” to 40 minutes to eliminate low-rated satellite shows during sweeps periods. He then shifted Donald Trump’s reality competition “The Apprentice” to Thursdays, declaring that NBC had found an unlikely heir to its sitcom titans.

But “The Apprentice,” like so many unscripted programs, quickly faded, leaving NBC with a huge void. Subsequent gambits — such as acquiring the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” package — have helped apply other band-aids in primetime.

The simplicity governing latenight, by contrast — two hours, two guys, a couple of desks — defies most efforts at spin or camouflage. And with Fallon anointed to fill O’Brien’s space, there’s apparently no going back — something TV insiders and even rivals saw as a possibility, despite the reported $40 million penalty that snubbing O’Brien would have triggered.

Third parties found it hard to believe that NBC parent General Electric would shut down a division, as it were, that remains as wildly profitable as “Tonight” under Leno. In baseball terms, pulling Leno resembles a baseball team yanking a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter. Sure, the guy’s arm is going to give out sooner or later, but removing him prematurely — even for a promising reliever — is every bit as dangerous as letting him hang onto the ball too long.

The usually accessible Leno has stopped talking to the press, but no one expects him to hang up his glove in 2009. Although he’ll be 59 by then, the comedy workhorse shows no signs of slowing, tirelessly playing dozens of corporate and club dates in addition to “Tonight.” His income from those appearances is substantial, and while he makes slightly less from NBC than the reported $31 million CBS pays Letterman, any new deal likely would be worth considerably more.

“He’s a worker,” says John Agoglia, the former NBC business affairs guru who played a key role — along with then-NBC Entertainment prexy Warren Littlefield — in the earlier succession drama. “In my view, he’s not going to march off into the sunset.”

Small wonder that ABC, Fox and Sony are all courting him to host a new talk program — one that will almost certainly be scheduled opposite at least half of “Tonight.” Even if Leno is sidelined for a few months while O’Brien settles in, the inevitable competition will make it that much more difficult for the new “Tonight” host to establish his footprint in a time period already crowded with upstart competitors on Comedy Central and Cartoon Network, among others.

Zucker declined an interview request, but the Harvard alum (a trait he shares with O’Brien) spoke at his alma mater’s business school earlier this year and said he hopes Leno “will stay with us” once the handoff happens. He added that there’s still plenty of time before O’Brien takes over, but left unspoken that Leno has exhibited zero interest in doing anything beyond what he does now — as he has described it, “Write joke. Tell joke. Collect check.”

In historical terms, the whole situation amounts to a rerun. Letterman clammed up when Leno was named Carson’s replacement, before signing with then-CAA topper Michael Ovitz. After a fleeting bid to stay with NBC and offers from multiple suitors, Letterman jumped to CBS, where he initially pounded Leno in the ratings before the tide turned in the mid-1990s, leaving Leno in the catbird seat.

At the time of the 1991 announcement, Leno couldn’t imagine Letterman would resent his appointment, telling the New York Times the two were “still good friends.” Leno also said he felt like “I just won the lottery.”

That last “Tonight Show” baton pass yielded a book, HBO movie and lots of metaphorical language about clown princes vying for Carson’s throne. As the NBC execs then in charge, Littlefield and Agoglia were largely depicted as the court jesters in the story, though Leno’s eventual success gave them a last laugh.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, though, current NBC brass look destined to walk a mile in their shoes. And for all his skillful past brinkmanship, Zucker may discover that in latenight TV’s version of musical chairs, there’s no pain-free solution — and no safe place to be sitting when the music stops.

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