So he’s really leaving The Tonight Show. Now what? Will the top-rated late-night host really just… fade away? Or will Jay Leno pop-up again, in an 11:30 p.m slot somewhere, grinning and aw-shucking and saying, “Hello! Have you heard about this? You read about this? Yeah, I’m still here! Amazing! Thank you!”
A survey of late-night and broadcast TV insiders disagreed on Leno’s next step. Like, radically disagreed. But some opinions were more common than others. Here are some of Leno’s possible options:
Go to Fox: Less likely than you might think. Every time Fox has tried to launch a late-night show it’s been a mess. Despite an affiliate president recently breaking ranks to make it sound like his station group would be on board with clearing Leno, every major local market throughout the country would have to make a hole, preferably in the same time slot, and that’s very tough to do with all the various programming commitments in place. “They say they want it but then say, ‘But we have [a sitcom repeat] in that slot!’” one insider noted. Besides, Fox will face some of the same issues NBC had with Leno: He is not the future of late night, and Fox is not the kind of network that wants to invest in older-skewing programming. Noted one late-night insider: “Executives are always asking themselves: ‘How do I look if I make this decision?’ If you plunk down $100 million for a new Jay Leno show, it’s too risky and there’s nothing cool about it.”
Take over CBS’ Late Show if Letterman retires in 2014: Nobody thinks this will happen. Leno has been CBS’ competitor too long; it’s like Coke having a conjugal visit with Pepsi — it just feels wrong. Even if Dave retires (and most seem to think he’ll stay for one more round) CBS will opt for somebody younger to take over the franchise, like Stephen Colbert. Also, those familiar with Leno’s thinking insist — contrary to his online reputation — he’s not looking to try and rain on Fallon’s parade by doing a rival show (especially after all the negative press he garnered during the Conan O’Brien debacle three years ago).
Go to cable:We’re hearing multiple outlets have already made overtures to Leno, who averages 3.6 million viewers for NBC. Though the cable chat-show landscape is considered where the cool kids like Jon Stewart, Joel McHale and Stephen Colbert hang out, the 62-year-old Leno wouldn’t necessarily be the old-guy-at-the-party when there’s also popular hosts like Bill O’Reilly (63) and Bill Maher (57). Would Leno want to go to cable after the coveted Tonight Show? Based on what transpired with the Conan shakeup a few years ago, Leno doesn’t have the same amount of pride as former Tonight kingpin Johnny Carson about going out on top. One insider said: “He wants to die in the chair.” I laughed. The insider added: “I’m not kidding.” An outlet like HBO could make sense. HBO can afford to give Leno a hearty salary and have enough cultural cache so that the host won’t feel like he’s taking a huge step down. A gig on CNN, now run by former NBC chief Jeff Zucker, has also been speculated as a possibility, but it seems unlikely the struggling outlet could afford Leno, especially since he doesn’t add any value to their core news business.
Stay at NBC: What? But he’s leaving! Well … it’s been announced he’s leaving The Tonight Show. An NBC insider says the broadcaster is open to doing something else with Leno (though not another 10 p.m. weeknight show). “If he wants to do something with us we’ll do the darnedest to make it happen,” one insider said. One report says Leno will be offered a development deal with the network as part of his separation package, but those close to the situation suspect Leno will pass. Still, one rival broadcast insider still refuses to believe NBC will pull the trigger: “You don’t give Jay Leno a year to figure out how to keep his job. He’s smarter than all of them.”
Return to stand-up: Tough to imagine given Leno’s TV popularity, but one late-night veteran says this was the most likely outcome: “I think Jay gets his own room in Las Vegas and makes a lot of money in standup,” he predicted. “I don’t see him coming back to TV.” Naturally, another insider, this one at NBC, strongly disagreed: “This is almost certainly the beginning of another chapter for Jay.”