Looming Leno-Conan switch sets up late-night questions

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

NEW YORK -- An orderly transfer of power: Is it possible?

With the presidency, sure. But what about late-night TV?

Despite lots of careful preparation, the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien handoff coming next year smacks of something from Bizarro World. Will it fly with viewers -- or crash?

Late night is set to be back on the nation's cultural radar screen in a way it hasn't since the Late Night Follies of the early 1990s. In the wake of Johnny Carson's retirement from "Tonight," the message was clear: More people were hooked on the late-night upheaval than ever got around to watching Jay or Dave.

History could repeat itself.

In mid-2009, Leno will relinquish the host chair he has occupied since May 25, 1992. He'll surrender NBC's "Tonight" to O'Brien, who moves up an hour from the outpost of "Late Night."

This transition plan was set in motion back in 2004, when NBC boldly pushed the button on a five-year countdown clock. Aimed at keeping O'Brien at NBC, the plan also guaranteed the network five more years of Leno's services at 11:30 p.m., where he continues to reign as late-night ratings champ, averaging 4.7 million viewers this season.

By this time next year, viewers will be sizing up the first months of Conan's "Late Night" successor, expected to be Jimmy Fallon. And by then, a guessing game should be well underway: What will the unintended fallout from NBC's strategy be? What kind of aftershocks will hit the late-night landscape?

Broach the subject with television execs, and you hear bemusement, bewilderment and scorn at NBC's tactics.

But that's just the sideshow. The towering uncertainty is Leno: Where will he land?

NBC has made no secret that it wants to keep Leno in the fold, and has offered him a slate of program options in an effort to persuade him to re-enlist.

But by the end of 2009, Leno will be free to pore over rival offers, savoring his status as the belle of the ball.

Fox has been mentioned as a possible suitor. Sony Pictures Television is reportedly eager to woo him with a cushy deal for a syndicated show.

Deemed far more likely: Leno would go to ABC, where he could launch a show at 11:30 p.m., pitting himself head-to-head against "Tonight."

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