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Will Jeff Zucker Make Jay Leno CNN’s New King?

The host could find post-'Tonight Show' home on the news cabler's lineup

As opposed to doling out unsolicited advice, it’s often much easier for columnists to sit back waiting for newsmakers to lay eggs – golden or otherwise – and then scramble or praise them accordingly.

Still, NBC’s latest attempt to reportedly prod Jay Leno toward a retirement he appears reluctant to pursue has inspired a solution so delicious, so fraught with irony, and so potentially logical as to demand expression.

Jeff Zucker, former NBC chief and new head of CNN, say hello to your newest primetime star: Jay Leno.

It was Zucker, remember, who came up with the latenight world’s version of a two-state (or perhaps two-host) solution, convincing Leno to announce he would step aside and hand over “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien back in 2004, thus buying the network five years of relative harmony until the planned 2009 baton pass.

The problem, alas, was once they reached that moment, Leno still wasn’t ready to hang up his spurs, leading NBC to shift the host into primetime, and when that failed, eventually reclaim his latenight seat.

Zucker, in other words, has enjoyed a front-row seat illustrating Leno’s work ethic, and thus should recognize what a valuable commodity he could be hosting a slightly modified program that would feature a topical monologue and interviews with public figures.

Oh, and the whole “We have to get younger” pressure, cited as motivation in every attempt to replace Leno? Given the geriatric skew of cable news, where more than half the audience is over 60, Leno – at 62, six months younger than ratings champ Bill O’Reilly – would fit right in.

Now, the idea of putting a comedian on a news network might initially cause purists to balk, but there is ample precedent for this, and I’m not merely referring to the last few years of Larry King’s CNN show, or pretty much any morning on “Fox & Friends.”

CNN International has carried “The Daily Show.” And Fox News experimented with a satirical newscast produced by “24” co-creator Joel Surnow, “The Half-Hour News Hour,” pitched as a conservative alternative to Jon Stewart’s program. Yes, it was awful, but the 2007 series demonstrated news channels aren’t above vying to deliver showbiz pizzazz.

Admittedly, among the latenight comics Leno – a more traditional stand-up and indifferent interviewer than David Letterman – isn’t the ideal choice for this assignment. But he’s the one most likely to be available, and could slide into the role King once occupied and significantly boost CNN’s primetime performance even if he drew a small portion of his current audience.

Presumably, it’s the kind of challenge Leno might welcome, and would offer him a comfortable perch – with perhaps even more flexibility – to continue his pattern of playing live dates along with his day gig.

For those aghast at the prospect, rest assured, CNN is no doubt weighing myriad options to try boosting tune-in. Nor is anyone working in TV news unaware of the giddy nature of the morning shows – increasingly viewed as the network news divisions’ most vital profit centers – and how “Good Morning America” has benefited from tarting up its profile, catering to viewers more interested in “The Bachelor” recaps than the intricacies of sequestration.

In short, unless CNN catches a break with more serious talent relatively soon, tapping Leno or someone like him would generate an enormous amount of attention, even if it’s not all favorable.

Finally, there would be wonderful symmetry in Zucker being the one to bring this latest chapter of NBC’s Latenight Follies to a close, in a manner that (for once) doesn’t involve the specter of Leno setting up shop at 11:35 p.m. elsewhere, which was always the network’s nightmare after Letterman did just that.

In a different era, Johnny Carson was heralded as the King of Latenight, leaving clown princes to vie over what has become a dwindling and divided kingdom. Frankly, even Leno should have grown tired of NBC’s nonsense by now, and, with little left to prove, be ready for a change of venue, if not pace.

So perhaps in his dotage – after two decades upon the throne – Leno should settle for simply being the new King of CNN.

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