Since The Tonight Show is a cash cow, Zucker is betting that Leno at 10 p.m. could be another. So NBC’s new slogan should be Nothing But Cheap. As for Leno, he and his powerhouse law firm, Ziffren, Brittenham, have a win-win situation — another fat contract that, this time, shouldn’t include a noncompete clause. But this isn’t about money for Leno; it’s about respect from Zucker. (Leno has said publicly that he’s able to bank his entire Tonight Show salary and live on the hefty fees from his personal appearances.)
Leno officially ends his Tonight Show host duties on May 29, and O’Brien starts on June 1. (Leno was going to be paid for all of 2009 by NBC even though he’s only working six months of it. He couldn’t start anywhere new until January 2010 because of a noncompete clause.)
So much for everyone, including me, thinking it was a lock for Leno to move to ABC as Jimmy Kimmel’s lead-in. But Leno had publicly told the press that he was “done” with NBC. He’d also been making merciless fun of NBC on the air. Judging from Leno’s animus toward Zucker, there was no way Leno would stay.
Instead, Leno was ABC-bound and on the air there in 2010. I’d heard from sources that Jimmy Kimmel was “okay” with having his time slot moved, and ABC extended its option with its current late-night host to keep him at the network through at least 2010. At the Television Critics Association briefing not long ago, ABC Entertainment topper Steve McPherson stated “there’s absolutely room for both” Kimmel and Leno, and pledged that Jimmy would be fully consulted during every step of the Jay negotiation — something Zucker failed to do with Leno. “I can’t believe they’re going to let this guy go at the top of his game,” McPherson said.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon began doing a Late Night Web show on December 8 to work out the kinks because Conan was so God-awful when he started hosting. Fallon will get TV time on the air, following Leno as O’Brien takes a breather and then prepares to take over The Tonight Show in May 2009. Meanwhile, how alarming for NBC that Late Late Show’s Craig Ferguson has caught up with Conan ratings-wise.
For his new show, Leno will tape in front of a live audience (but probably earlier in the day than 5 p.m.), and remain at NBC’s Burbank studio (whereas O’Brien is moving The Tonight Show to the new studio on the Universal lot), and be off the air for just three months. But hopefully Leno’s new show won’t just rely on his tired Tonight Show segments like “Jay Walking” and “Headlines.”
Estimates are that Leno 2.0 may only cost $2 million a week and result in 46 weeks of original shows, compared to the average $3 million per episode price tag of scripted prime-time dramas that air, on average, 22 original weekly episodes.
But the real question is whether the 58-year-old can attract more eyeballs than just the 4.8 million he averages now on The Tonight Show — measly by prime-time standards, especially in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. But Zucker will explain this away by repeating his mantra that in this lousy economy he’s managing for margins instead of ratings. Maybe soon he’ll stop programming altogether.