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Opinion: Jay Leno for Life!

Not to tell NBC its business, but here’s some free advice to use the next time someone runs one of those quarterly stories saying the network is thinking about succession plans for Jay Leno.

Issue the following statement: “We have no plans to replace Jay Leno until A) Jay decides to retire himself or B) some higher power retires him. Think of Jay as a dictator for life. If you haven’t noticed, we have some other problems to deal with right now. And by the way, have you asked CBS about David Letterman? Because last we checked, he’s a few years older than Jay.”

Granted, I understand the whole demo thing, and the concern about ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel making inroads in latenight. But after having been burned on latenight-related succession stories so many times over the last 20 years, if there’s even a kernel of truth to the recurring rumors, I’m starting to think NBC desperately needs someone to create a new History Channel that actually covers history.

Whatever Leno’s failings — commercially or creatively — he seems to be the least of NBC’s problems. Moreover, the network’s primetime woes (and lest anyone forget, slippage in the morning race) can’t be helping funnel viewers in “The Tonight Show’s” direction.

NBC officials would also be foolish to assume Jimmy Fallon will solve the challenge they faced when Conan O’Brien slid into the latenight slot. Yes, he might bring a younger audience skew to the time period, but odds are a lot of the older viewers who have been watching Leno won’t feel obligated to hang around. Frankly, it might be time for everyone in latenight to start pressuring the sales department to figure out how to sell the audience you have, instead of tackling on another baton pass while trying to juggle so many other balls at once.

The rationale for pushing a change based on fear of Kimmel’s toehold is equally questionable. Because the revolving door in latenight TV turns so infrequently (they pick Popes about as often), any newcomer to the 11:35 p.m. slot will get a look and some sampling. Will Kimmel really establish such a lock on the latenight audience a rival would be unable to compete? I sincerely doubt that.

Finally, there’s the weirdness of the Leno-Letterman relationship, and the question of who will ultimately blink first. Installing your guy as dictator for life would shift the focus elsewhere.

Leno has made pretty clear he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to go rest on his laurels. So unless NBC wants to again face the prospect of him turning up somewhere else (even if it’s just AARP Network — or CNN), they had better be sure he’s completely on board with any proposed “retirement.”

Since conservatives know a little something about hanging on the past, you might even borrow one of their old slogans: Leno now, Leno tomorrow, Leno forever. Or at least, until he decides it’s time to hang up the gloves.

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