Chelsea Lately Chelsea Handler Negotiotions

Analysis: Network's refusal to acknowledge rumors that latenight's only female-led show is leaving its schedule suggests talks may still be afoot

Chelsea Handler says she’s leaving E! Her manager, Irving Azoff, says she’s leaving E!, too. The only entity that hasn’t confirmed her departure is, well, E! itself.

That’s a very telling absence in all the wind and speculation blowing around the comedienne’s ultimate fate. Her contract to do “Chelsea Lately” at E! expires at the end of the year. Handler and E! are said to be in ongoing talks about whether or not she stays at the network.

If you believe Handler, and, ah,  Handler’s handlers, she’s outta there. She told Conan O’Brien as much during a recent appearance on his TBS program, noting that “I’m done with that show” and “I have to move on.”

Does she? Because if her separation is a done deal, E! really should announce it. The news would let the network –and the ad-sales honchos at its owner, NBCUniversal – tee up viewers and advertisers for a farewell run for her program, which is, believe it or not, the only female-led late-night talk show on TV. Handler has built up an intense fan base over her almost seven years on the network, and her show is a signature one for a cable outlet that could use a few more (especially as its Kardashian franchise starts to age).

Other media conglomerates are happy to talk about departing stars. Over at Viacom, where Stephen Colbert will leave his “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central at the end of the year to start work on his version of CBS’ “Late Show,”  Chief Executive Philippe Dauman told investors earlier today that Comedy Central ” looks forward to sending him off in style.””

What’s the reason for the network’s silence and the comedienne’s ongoing commentary? One suspects the two sides are still haggling over the prospect of continuing the show (Of course, E! may also simply be trying to figure out how to replace a five-nights-a-week strip).

Handler may be taking her time after the swirl of publicity surrounding her most recent bestselling book, “Uganda Be Kidding Me.” And she may be speaking out to put pressure on E! while terms are up for discussion. Meanwhile, NBCU executives like Bonnie Hammer and Suzanne Kolb may be looking at the program – and recent declines in its ratings and advertising attached to it – and wondering if Handler would be willing to cut some costs from the show to have it continue. Keep in mind, after all, this is the company that wasn’t shy about asking Jay Leno to cut his $30 million “Tonight Show” salary in half when he returned to latenight after a disastrous primetime outing.

In any case, it’s amusing to examine how much mileage Handler’s team has been getting out of the rumor-mongering around her next move  – and how little E! is tipping its hand.

There’s reason for Handler and her representatives to follow the network’s example. One can’t help but be reminded of a peevish Katie Couric during her tenure as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” between 2006 and 2011. By 2008, after an effort to reshape the broadcast for younger audiences failed, reports began to leak of Couric’s dissatisfaction, as well as the potential next steps the popular newscaster could take.

“CBS News, Katie Couric Are Likely to Part Ways” screamed a headline on the front of the “Marketplace” section of the April 10, 2008, edition of the Wall Street Journal. The accompanying article suggested Couric might take over for Larry King on CNN. Similar leaks trickled out subsequently, but the TV journalist never did leave the network before her contract came to an end.

Handler has been vocal about a potential interest in launching a program via Netflix (though she dismissed recent erroneous reports she had signed a contract with the streaming-video player). She also posted a picture of herself via Instagram holding papers with the CBS Eye logo on them with the accompanying caption “business meeting.”

There ought to be a place for her on TV, if that’s something she truly wants (Handler also told O’Brien she was “ready to take a little bit of a break”). There are two empty latenight slots that need to be filled: CBS’ “Late Late Show” will need a host once Craig Ferguson departs at the end of the year, and Comedy Central will need a smart personality to host its 11:30 p.m. half hour after Colbert leavs around the same time. Besides, who knows what new top executives at Time Warner’s Turner make of “Conan” on TBS, which was brought aboard by the now-departed Steve Koonin? The comedian’s deal there lasts through November 2015.

None of this is to say Handler doesn’t already have a deal somewhere or isn’t making the rounds of potential suitors. But when a significant player on a network’s schedule decides to take the ball and go home, there’s usually more than one voice in the chorus that surrounds the event.

While other hosts play the role of the fan (Jimmy Fallon), the pundit (Jon Stewart) or the prankster (Jimmy Kimmel), Handler offers something different, even refreshing: the world through a gimlet eye. To keep that view on TV, Handler and her representation might want to entertain in public, but negotiate in private.

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