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Despite reports that NBC is pushing Jay Leno out the door so that Jimmy Fallon can start hosting The Tonight Show next year, Leno is still the #1-rated hosted in late night. So, naturally, he'll be in high-demand if NBC does go through with the Fallon succession plan (which the network has yet to confirm). So, what are Leno's options if he does actually have to leave The Tonight Show behind?
Fox (along with ABC) previously courted Leno the last time he was leaving The Tonight Show in 2009, and the network briefly went after Conan O'Brien when he left Tonight the following year. Unlike competitors NBC, CBS, and ABC, Fox stations end their local news broadcasts by 11pm instead of 11:35, meaning that a Fox late night show would be able to start a full 35 minutes earlier than its competitors and suck audiences in before rival shows begin. A Fox spokesman told The NY Post today that the network "has no plans for a late-night show — at this time," but Steve Pruett, the head of Fox's affiliate board, was asked if his group is interested in Leno on Fox. He responded, "If Fox were to present the right business plan, the affiliate board would be interested."
Fox looks like it's the only major network where Leno could jump to, what with everyone else already having a host. Leno's popularity would appeal to Fox viewers and executives alike, and the 11pm slot and a chance to beat Fallon and Letterman with a show on a high-rated network would appeal to Leno; however, the network hasn't had a late night series since the disastrous Chevy Chase Show went off the air in 1993 and getting its affiliates out of all their 11pm sitcom syndication contracts represents another hurdle.
Leno could pull a Conan and jump to cable with a new talk show, and USA seems like the best bet. USA has been the highest-rated basic cable network for the past seven years and with the gap between network and cable ratings getting smaller and smaller by the second, the fact that Leno would be on cable instead of a network wouldn't matter so much in a couple years. Plus, USA is owned by NBC, meaning that they might be able to negotiate with Leno before his contract is up in September 2014 whereas he is most likely barred from being able to talk with other networks for several more months after his contract ends. USA has been interested in expanding into late night for a while now. They sent feelers out to Conan back in 2010 before he jumped to TBS, and the network is currently developing a 12am morning show-themed late night talk show from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's company Gary Sanchez Productions. A new Jay Leno talk show could slide perfectly into their schedule at 11pm right before that and give that Gary Sanchez talk show a huge lead-in.
FX launched talk shows from Russell Brand and W. Kamau Bell last year, but both series are only weekly so they have room for a nightly show. FX is a top-rated cable network, meaning they'll look attractive to Leno and have the money to potentially start a five-or-four-day-a-week show for him. Like USA, FX also courted Conan in 2010 so they may be interested, and Leno's program would be a great flagship show for FXX, an all-comedy network FX is considering launching this fall.
Jay Leno's primetime show on NBC was a huge disaster, and it's unlikely that a major network would give him a nightly primetime show again. But with ratings falling all across the board and Leno's old primetime numbers looking pretty good compared to NBC's current ones for more expensive original programming, maybe he' d be given a weekly primetime slot on NBC or a new network, or a series of primetime specials.
With Netflix and Amazon each making a big push to launch original streaming content, Jay Leno could hypothetically try to do something there. Sure, his older audience isn't exactly the tech-savvy crowd and the streaming model isn't a great fit for a disposable late night show, but this still remains a possibility – albeit an unlikely one.
Where He Won't Go
While it seems like most networks would love to have the #1-rated host in late night, Fox is the only one who has any space for Leno. CBS and ABC have Letterman and Kimmel locked into contracts at 11:35. Plus, if Letterman does leave CBS, his 12:35 guy Craig Ferguson has a guarantee that he'll inherit The Late Show. Pay cable networks HBO and Showtime went after Conan in 2010, but Leno's squeaky-clean, safe humor doesn't really fit with those channels' edgier, more provactive, award-winning programming.