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Can NBC Escape Latenight PR Mess?

Somewhere, Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin — hell, a whole lot of NBC alumni, not all of them named Jeff — should be laughing, or at least smiling.

The New York Times is the latest news outlet to pile on and mildly advance the story that Jay Leno will be replaced by Jimmy Fallon, most likely some time in 2014.

Yet as one would think NBC might have learned by now, there is absolutely no way to do anything involving a change in latenight that does not turn into a whopping public-relations nightmare unless the guy you are replacing comes to you and says, “I really want to spend more time…” A) playing comedy clubs; B) enjoying my car collection; C) at home, counting large stacks of money; or D) any combination of the above.

Now, to go back a few years, even casual observers might recall when faced with this multiple-choice question, Leno chose E) shop myself to other networks, which set off the panic that ultimately led to his 10 p.m. NBC talkshow — you know, the one doing better most nights than the current crop of NBC dramas.

Leno might have a change of heart, but banking on that to save the network’s bacon — and keep its PR department from drinking Maalox out of the bottle — is sort of like betting on three No. 16 seeds to advance in the NCAA tournament.

The real mystery, amid all of this, is why on Earth network honchos — faced with as much bad PR as they’re already garnering — would brave wading into the treacherous waters of latenight at this juncture. Does Jimmy Fallon really have so many inviting options that he has to be handed “The Tonight Showright now, or they’ll risk losing him? And does anyone at NBC really think Fallon — while almost certainly skewing younger — will do markedly better than Leno, especially if the network continues to struggle in primetime?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the only real strategy that would make sense at this point would be to treat Leno like the Pope: It’s a lifetime gig, unless he decides otherwise.

But perhaps I’m overthinking all this. The Times’ Bill Carter hasn’t written a latenight book in a couple of years, and Conan O’Brien is slated to perform at the upcoming White House Correspondents Dinner in April. Maybe the network just wants to give the two of them — and the rest of us — something to write about and joke about, respectively. (O’Brien’s TBS show, incidentally, is dark this week, but those with a taste for the perverse might be inclined to tune in when he returns this Monday.)

The bottom line is until the network definitively settles this question — in a manner that will quiet the speculation, and not just punt it down the road — the Spanish term for the network’s Peacock is going to be pinata.

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