Late-night swap as must-see TV?

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- 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.

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 "The Tonight Show," 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.

By this time next year, viewers will be sizing up the first months of O'Brien'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?

The towering uncertainty is Leno: Where will he land? He's a tireless worker, loyal company man, top performer -- all grounds for dismissal in 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 redeclared the late-night initiative, as well as his confidence in O'Brien.

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 reenlist.

But by the end of 2009, Leno will be free to pore over rival offers. 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."

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