Why Is NBC Chasing Away Jay Leno?

Audiences haven't had a new late-night host to chew up and spit out in quite some time. Remember Chevy Chase? Magic Johnson? Joan Rivers?

They all tried to send us off to sleep each weeknight, but in return we sent them to the showers. Chase's exit was particularly cruel, given the hype surrounding his Fox gig. His career took a significant hit from that six-week stint.

So why is NBC all but chasing away Jay Leno, the surest thing in late-night history since Johnny Carson last swung his imaginary golf club? You can expect a bidding war for the avuncular Leno in the months to come that will make Katie Couric's romance with CBS look like a teenage crush.

It all goes back to a rushed business decision the Peacock network made four years ago to keep Conan O'Brien in the fold. Contract talks with the red-headed comic, who seemed unlikely to last the week, let alone 14-plus years when he first replaced David Letterman, had hit a major snag.

So the network suits threw him a Hail Mary -- you can take over The Tonight Show in five years if you stay with the NBC family. Heck, there's no way Leno will still be the king of that time slot by 2009, right.

Right?

Flash forward to 2008, and Leno remains the undisputed late night champ. The Tonight Show earns more than $100 million annually for NBC, according to press reports. The program regularly trumps rival David Letterman's The Late Show in the ratings with little sign of slipping.

The change is expected to happen mid-next year. O'Brien will assume The Tonight Show hosting duties, former Saturday Night Live star Jimmy Fallon slips into O'Brien's Late Night slot and Leno gets to scratch his iconic chin while considering his next move.

NBC will offer what it can to keep Leno in the fold, but it's taken away the one gig he's best suited for -- the network's 11:35 p.m. slot. The irony is Leno isn't nearly as talented as his predecessor, but he brings just the right mix of abilities to please the masses. Easier said than done in this highly splintered media age.

Actors love him because he rarely asks questions that push them out of their comfort zone. There's never a whiff of danger when Leno's on the beat, at least since former guest Howard Stern stopped making irregular appearances. Carson forged a TV empire with his sardonic wit, penchant for self mockery and a series of ridiculous bit characters. Leno simply went the common denominator route. Never tax the audience, always deliver a sharp monologue and let those late night hours float right on by.

To be fair, a few of his bits remain rigorously funny. The Monday night staple "Headlines" is a howl, letting Leno play off material submitted by the audience. Simple. Effective. Timeless.

And his Jaywalking bits let the stand-up comic think on his feet, something he's still able to do when uncoupled from the show's rigid format. Turns out that's exactly what a tense nation needs late at night, a warm, witty host who won't challenge any of your preconceived notions.

Leno's apolitical mien surely plays into his good guy appeal. While Letterman occasionally reveals his true ideology - particularly when viciously attacking right-leaning guests like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Leno keeps attacking all sides without appearing beholden to either party. If his political broadsides hit one party harder, his choir boy veneer lets him sneak away without so much as a mark. He's long since lost any cutting edge appeal to his comedy, but he's grown a very thick hide that protects him against criticism.

Best of all, Leno brings a quality that's nearly absent in Hollywood circles - consistency. He shows up to work every day, takes less vacation time than someone of his status might and never provides any embarrassing tabloid fodder. He's a sure thing. How much is that worth in today's marketplace? The mind reels.

So where will he end up next year? Wouldn't TBS, rebranded as cable's go-to comedy network, love to have Leno anchoring its late-night lineup? And ABC would gladly retire Nightline and bump Jimmy Kimmel Live by 30 minutes to make way for Jay. What about Fox? The list may be endless.

Some could argue it's the Tonight Show brand which deserves credit for Leno's success. Don't buy it. It's Leno's presence, his familiarity and comfort level that breeds a winning show.

There are precious few sure things in entertainment. Leno, who took over for Johnny Carson in 1992I, is one of them. NBC will likely pay dearly for their misjudgment come 2009.