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Questions over looming Leno-Conan handoff

Despite lots of careful preparation, the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien handoff coming next year smacks of something from Bizarro World. Will it fly with viewers — or crash? Can’t you just feel the suspense?
/ Source: The Associated Press

An orderly transfer of power: Is it possible?

With the presidency, sure. But what about late-night TV?

Despite lots of careful preparation, the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien handoff coming next year smacks of something from Bizarro World. Will it fly with viewers — or crash? Can’t you just feel the suspense?

Maybe you’ve got more urgent matters to dwell on right now. Like, who wins the White House or how long Katie Couric can hang on. Or those Miley Cyrus photos.

But before you know it, late night will be back on the nation’s cultural radar screen (not just TV screens) in a way it hasn’t since the Late Night Follies of the early 1990s. In the wake of Johnny Carson’s retirement from “Tonight,” the message was clear: More people were hooked on the late-night upheaval than ever got around to watching Jay or Dave.

History could repeat itself.

In mid-2009, Leno will relinquish the host chair he has occupied since May 25, 1992. He’ll surrender NBC’s “Tonight” to O’Brien, who moves up an hour from the outpost of “Late Night.”

This transition plan was set in motion back in 2004, when NBC boldly pushed the button on a five-year countdown clock. Aimed at keeping O’Brien at NBC, the plan also guaranteed the network five more years of Leno’s services at 11:30 p.m., where he continues to reign as late-night ratings champ (averaging 4.7 million viewers this season). But NBC’s announcement instantly made Leno the odd man out — a designated lame duck, five years in advance, as his reward for a job well done.

By this time next year, viewers will be sizing up the first months of Conan’s “Late Night” successor, expected to be Jimmy Fallon. And by then, a guessing game should be well under way: What will the unintended fallout from NBC’s strategy be? What kind of aftershocks will hit the late-night landscape?

It’s never too soon to start making your predictions. Within the TV industry, the game has already begun. Broach the subject with television execs, and you hear bemusement, bewilderment and scorn at NBC’s tactics.

Meanwhile, these professional observers, speaking on condition of anonymity because the situation remains unsettled, spin out numerous scenarios for how things might shake out. CBS’ “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” the hardy competitor to “Late Night,” will thrive — or struggle — against newcomer Fallon. David Letterman’s “Late Show” could boost its standing after years in second-place against Leno ... or not. And will the shakeup affect ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel? A case can be made either way.

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But that’s just the sideshow. The towering uncertainty is Leno: Where will he land? He’s a tireless worker, loyal company man, top performer — all grounds for dismissal on Bizarro World. Who will snap him up?

One outlandish but persistent prediction: NBC gets cold feet and decides to leave him right where he is (and where he always wanted to stay). Reneging on O’Brien would cost NBC a stiff penalty, reportedly at least $40 million. But considering how lucrative the “Tonight Show” franchise is to NBC (worth more than $100 million annually), the expense could be justified if the network had an eleventh-hour crisis of faith. Or so the theory goes.

Nonsense, says NBC. In recent weeks, Jeff Zucker, boss of NBC Universal, has re-declared the late-night initiative, as well as his confidence in O’Brien.

But can Conan deliver when he gets to the big leagues? What if he stumbles in the ratings at 11:30 p.m.?

And what if Jay agrees to remain at NBC, available to reclaim the wheel at “Tonight” and save the day?

NBC devised just such a fallback against Leno during his unpromising first months on “Tonight.” As recounted in Bill Carter’s book “The Late Shift,” NBC offered Letterman the host job in January 1993. All he had to do was cool his heels for a year and half, until Leno’s contract ran out. Then “Tonight” would be his. Letterman came close to taking the deal.

Now NBC has made no secret that it wants to keep Leno in the fold, and has offered him a slate of program options in an effort to persuade him to re-enlist.

But by the end of 2009, Leno will be free to pore over rival offers, savoring his status as the belle of the ball.

Fox has been mentioned as a possible suitor. Sony Pictures Television is reportedly eager to woo him with a cushy deal for a syndicated show.

Deemed far more likely: Leno would go to ABC, where he could launch a show at 11:30 p.m., pitting himself head-to-head against “Tonight.”

But could Leno attract an audience at ABC large enough to teach his former network a lesson?

Maybe not, if you buy the theory that “Tonight” as a lofty institution helps explain Leno’s late-night success all these years, and that, were he starting a talk show from scratch, he wouldn’t be as popular.

Or maybe he would. Maybe he will be. Leno is the wild card. Coming up in late night, “wild” could be the word.