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Why Jay Leno and CNN Won’t Be Getting Hitched So Quickly

TV analysis: Leno as the new Larry King? A CNN seat sounds intriguing, but will business fundamentals support the notion?

Jay Leno has for years, despite a wide array of competition, kept NBC with the largest portion of the increasingly splintered latenight audience. Could he do something similar for CNN?

Speculation has erupted, as it often does in these sorts of scenarios, that Leno is entertaining deals from any number of interested parties for a new gig once he steps down from the Peacock’s “Tonight” throne come early next year. Among the suitors, according to a report in The Hollywood Reporter, is Time Warner’s venerable cable-news outlet, currently led by former NBCUniversal topper Jeff Zucker.

The combination would seem to be a potent one. Leno exudes the same kindof aw-shucks charm as Larry King, the one-time linchpin of CNN’s primetime schedule. He could hold forth at 11 p.m. on CNN – a time when viewers may not be expecting traditional anchor-and-desk  fare –  and let loose with a bunch of topical jokes that might make for a sort of “Daily Show” for flyover country.

But many people are throwing cold water on this idea, and perhaps with good reason.  A Leno program on CNN could be hard to float financially. His salary – cut to $15 million per year in 2012 from $30 million after the comic returned to 11:35 p.m. from NBC’s primetime – might be hard to justify at a cable network that doesn’t make the bulk of its ad revenue as the clock ticks closer to midnight (And would fewer appearances garner attention? Once-a-week Leno?)

Even so, CNN needs to move its needle. Yes, the network has seen some ratings momentum this year thanks to a rash of big, breaking-news events like the Boston Marathon bombing and the George Zimmerman trial, as well as a new strategy that uses interesting documentaries like “Our Nixon” and “Blackfish” and a new series featuring Anthony Bourdain. But its primetime slate, which hit rocky ratings ground in late October and early November, needs to be more competitive against rivals who tend to offer more opinionated fare.

Is Jay Leno the answer? Probably about as much as Katie Couric was when CNN was constantly floated as a potential landing-place for the former “Today” host when her tenure at “CBS Evening News” came under scrutiny. Yes, a Leno show on CNN would raise eyebrows.And yes, it would likely draw a bigger audience than the news outlet has now at many points on its schedule.  But yes, Leno could probably make more of a stir doing what he does now for another backer, whether it be a syndicated venue or another network.

Besides, one has to ask if Time Warner would want to shell out the production costs  and salaries for not one, but two former “Tonight” hosts. Don’t forget, Conan O’Brien has been holding forth over at the company’s TBS since 2010.

If Jeff Zucker did meet with Leno recently, well, why not? A lot of folks are no doubt curious about his plans after his “Tonight” tenure ends for a second time next year.  A CNN spokeswoman did not respond to a query about a possible Leno program at the network. But Leno likely would not be able to entertain offers until his “Tonight” contract with NBC ends, and even then, wouldn’t the network have some sort of non-compete terms in effect, much like it did when it parted ways with David Letterman in 1993 and O’Brien more than a decade later?

Leno by all accounts wants to keep working. He’s driven to it. And CNN wants someone who will help its primetime work better. Will they get together? We’ll probably know before the end of the Winter Olympics. But this is far from a sure thing.

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