Here we go again. Jay Leno's contract with NBC's Tonight Show is up at the end of the 2013-14 season, leading to speculation that the network may put Late Night host Jimmy Fallon behind the desk at 11:35pm. Here are the hot topics bound to cause some network executives to lose sleep in the coming months.
Why would NBC replace Jay Leno when he's still the late-night ratings leader?
Leno will turn 63 in April, and the preference inside NBC is to transition to Fallon, 38, before ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! builds a bigger following at 11:35. "Fallon is the future," says one network insider. "You don't want to give Kimmel a several-year head start." NBC has denied that there are any talks to move Leno out, but the insider insists, "It's not if — it's when and how." Other industry insiders believe Leno may have agreed to leave at the end of the 2013-14 season when he signed a one-year extension (at a lower salary) last year. Those who have worked with Leno refuse to believe he'll go quietly. "He can say, 'I'm a known commodity. I'm still winning the time slot and you've got plenty of fires to put out,'" notes one former NBC executive. Unlike a few years ago, Leno will not have an offer from ABC to use as leverage. "The threat of going somewhere else now is empty," the exec adds.
What will NBC do with Late Night if Fallon goes to The Tonight Show?
With ratings diminished and a multitude of cable outlets now in the game, the 12:35am hour is no longer a big profit center for NBC, according to several industry executives. There has even been talk of giving back the hour to affiliates, returning Tonight to its 90-minute format or airing repeat programming instead. Any new show airing after Tonight would need to be a low-cost affair without a live band or a large team of comedy writers. (Hiring a high-priced host such as Howard Stern, as one TV critic recently suggested, seems unlikely.)
How much longer will David Letterman stay with CBS's Late Show?
Letterman extended his Late Show deal through 2014, which means he'll surpass Johnny Carson as the longest-running late-night host in TV history. CBS chief Leslie Moonves has repeatedly said it's up to Letterman when he wants to hang it up. (Moonves does not want to be remembered as the executive who pushed out Letterman, a broadcasting icon despite his diminished ratings.) People who have competed with and worked alongside the host believe he'll want to stay just long enough to outlast his rival Leno. "I think he'll retire six months after Jay leaves," says one veteran of the late-night wars. Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson is also signed through 2014, and although CBS recently gave him a bigger studio, it's far from guaranteed that he'll take Letterman's time slot.
Can Arsenio Hall become a late-night player again?
He'll try when he gets busy with a new syndicated show that launches September 9. No late-night syndicated talk show has worked since Hall (left) departed in 1994, although plenty (including Magic Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Jon Stewart) have tried. Nearly 20 years after he left the air, Hall, who raised his profile by winning Celebrity Apprentice last year, will return as the only African-American host in the time period. "The response from stations has been overwhelming," says CBS TV Distribution sales president Joe DiSalvo. "Most have given the show prime real estate as the lead out from their local late newscasts. They recognize the potential to have the next breakout hit."
Who stands to gain from Jon Stewart's hiatus from The Daily Show this summer?
Probably no one. The late-night audience is already so splintered that The Daily Show fans who will miss Stewart during the 12-week break he's taking to direct a film will have little impact if they tune in to something else. (Daily Show correspondent John Oliver will fill in for eight weeks; the remaining four will be repeats.) "Stewart has a very rabid following," says one network executive. "They'll be back." The real question is what Stewart's next move will be when his Comedy Central contract is up in June 2015. And then the shuffling could begin again.