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NBC’s Jay Leno Problem: Casting a Shadow Over Jimmy Fallon’s Launch

Until the current host sets his plans, the network is going to face unwanted distractions

The idea that Jay Leno might be wooed by various suitors for a new TV gig creates a problem for NBC. Not necessarily the threat that its current “The Tonight Show” host is going to go into business opposite Jimmy Fallon, but that the uncertainty surrounding the future TV Academy Hall of Famer will overshadow, or at least distract attention from, its introduction of Jimmy Fallon as his replacement.

It should come as no surprise that producers and networks — including CNN CEO Jeff Zucker, Leno’s one-time boss — would be kicking the tires regarding Leno’s future plans. Indeed, the idea of CNN using Leno to prop up its sluggish primetime lineup seemed pretty obvious, or at least worth considering, back when the Fallon handoff was being announced last spring.

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen this movie before — you know, when Conan O’Brien got the job, and his ascent was plagued by the “Where’s Jay going to go?” speculation. Ultimately, NBC got cold feet and decided to keep Leno by giving him the 10 p.m. hour, a decision that will forever leave behind doubts regarding whether O’Brien ever truly received a clean shot at making “The Tonight Show” his own.

NBC isn’t going to repeat that mistake, but everything about the Fallon rollout has a vaguely familiar whiff to it — from using the Winter Olympics as its springboard to trying to provide the new guy exposure in primetime, including an upcoming Jan. 5 special featuring highlights from his later-night program.

As I’ve stated before, the only way Leno won’t be a distraction is if he decides to go sit on a beach somewhere (not likely), or content himself to playing comedy clubs and eschewing regular TV exposure. But unlike Johnny Carson — who decided he’d done it all, and retired to Malibu to watch hummingbirds mate — Leno’s work ethic suggests he’ll remain on the stage. It’s just a question of where and how.

There were only two solutions to that: Let Leno host “The Tonight Show” until he came to NBC and said enough’s enough; or actually convince him to take the deal that was initially floated regarding Carson, where he becomes this generation’s Bob Hope, hosting periodic specials.

Barring that, as much as NBC would like to keep the spotlight trained on Fallon, the Leno part of the latenight equation — as the one aspect that remains unsettled — is more intriguing, and thus destined to continue to exhaust a lot of the oxygen surrounding “The Tonight Show” baton pass until it’s officially resolved.

And if I was David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel or anyone else with a stake in their success, I couldn’t be happier.

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