Nobody has a better handle on the late night scene than Bill Carter at The New York Times. The author of The Late Shift and, more recently, Desperate Networks, Carter's connections with industry power players runs deep, even after he's spilled the beans so many times in the past. I know from personal experience that he's an easy guy to talk to and one hell of a listener. Being the Times' guy, he gets to sit down on a bench next to Les Moonves at the CBS press tour party and share a private moment. He also knows when to lock all that up in the vault and when to run with it large--which is why Moonves and others keep talking to him.
So when Carter says Jay Leno will bolt NBC once his Tonight Show deal is done in 2009 to become the highest-paid player at 11:30, take it to the bank.
The full story is here in today's New York Times. Among the highlights: Conan O'Brien, promised the Tonight Show in a deal to take effect in the fall of 2009, will probably shut down NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien in January of next year. That will give him six months or so to take over The Tonight Show, which will be shot in a new studio NBC is building now.
Replacing O'Brien on Late Night at 12:35 will most likely be former SNL star Jimmy Fallon, Lorne Michaels' hand-picked successor. Michaels, who snatched O'Brien from obscurity, producers Late Night through his company, Broadway Video.
Leno will remain under contract to NBC and can not launch a rival show until Jan., 2010, allowing O'Brien a few months to get a leg up at 11:30.
NBC, of course, wants to keep both Leno and O'Brien. All Leno wants, as Carter re-states, is to keep "doing jokes at 11:30." NBC takes that away late next year, despite the fact that Leno, even without writers through the strike, continues to dominate arch rival Letterman in the ratings.
Which is why Leno, NBC's ultimate company man, is likely to walk. While no one is supposed to be negotiating with him yet, among the networks and studios circling are ABC, Fox and Sony. The latter is said to be offering Leno his own new studio on their lot and $40 million a year--well above David Letterman's current take, rumored to be north of $30 million. Carter figures Leno now squeaks by at a mere $25 million (plus whatever he hauls in through hundreds of club dates a year).
If Leno chooses ABC, one rumored scenario, they'll cancel Nightline and give him their 11:30 slot. Fox would likely offer him 11 p.m.
Not mentioned in Carter's piece is the fate of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who keeps steadily inching up on his rivals in the ratings and has generated a lot of heat lately with his hilarious "I'm F***ing Matt Damon" videos with girlfriend Sarah Silverman. Leno and Kimmel teamed up during the recent writers strike, guesting on each other's shows. Have they formed an alliance heading into this high stakes game of network tribal council? Will Leno eventually cut a deal where he owns his show and owns Kimmel's that follows?
All that is certain is that NBC's gamble to keep O'Brien in this protracted five year Tonight Show hand off is not going to be enough all by itself to keep the Peacock network No. 1. Like everything else in television, late night is up for grabs heading into 2009. Look for Carter to explain it all to us before then.