NBC announced on April 3 that Jay Leno will once again hand over the reins of NBC's Tonight Show — which he began hosting in 1992 — this time to Late Night's Jimmy Fallon. Leno says that after he signs off in February 2014, you'll find him in his garage. But it's more likely the car enthusiast will be back in front of a camera than under the hood of a classic Chevy.
One industry insider who knows Leno says two cable networks have already approached the comic about launching a new show after he leaves NBC. By that time, Leno will be 64 — considered over the hill for the 18- to 49-year-old viewers advertisers seek in late night. But in the wider TV landscape, where octogenarians such as Barbara Walters and Regis Philbin still hold jobs, he's practically a youngster.
Having averaged 3.6 million viewers in the first quarter of 2013, Leno still attracts the most eyeballs of any late-night host. He may not reach that large an audience in his next gig, but that might not matter. "I think Jay's going to have to accept the fact that he's going to have a smaller show with fewer viewers," the insider says. "The most important thing to him is the ability to stand up in front of some audience and tell jokes. He always wants to be in the news with his humor. He just needs a pulpit."
Here are some of his possible job options.
NBC: Sources tell TV Guide Magazine that Leno's Tonight Show parting gift from the network will be a program development deal that would keep him in the Peacock family. Leno will have to decide before his Tonight run ends whether to take the offer, which will likely include the opportunity to do primetime specials. One former NBC executive who has dealt with the star doesn't see him in an impresario role that doesn't include a regular show: "He'd only take that deal as a last resort."
HBO: The premium cable network is said to be looking for a big name to host a live weekly topical comedy show that could pair or alternate with Real Time With Bill Maher. Such a format would keep Leno relevant without the financial commitment of an expensive nightly show.
Fox: A high-ranking Fox executive says the network isn't interested in getting into the late-night business, as the competition is stiffer and profit margins thinner than they were three years ago, when the network was in talks with Conan O'Brien. But one factor that could make Fox take a second look at a Leno-hosted show is that the supply of comedies that its affiliates depend on acquiring for late-night programming will get pretty lean in the coming years, as there is no big sitcom hit in the pipeline for syndication beyond Modern Family.
CNN: Former NBC honcho and current CNN chief Jeff Zucker maintained a strong relationship with Leno and Tonight executive producer Debbie Vickers after he left the network. And Zucker has shown a willingness to experiment as he tries to get CNN buzz and better ratings. While journalism purists may howl at the idea of Leno getting a regular forum on CNN, it should be noted that cable-news channels run clips of late-night comics musing on current events every day, so why shouldn't CNN have a comic of its own? "The question is, do you use him in a Larry King—type of [interview] setting and let him tell a few jokes at the beginning?" says a Leno associate who thinks the idea could work. One issue: Leno has never been a great interviewer, since his forte is one-liners. One CNN executive says, "It's far-fetched — and he would have to take a serious pay cut.
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