US networks launch bidding war for the king of late-night TV

Will Jay Leno go jaywalking? That's the multimillion-dollar question hanging over the future of America's most bankable late-night chat-show host.

Five of the biggest US networks are attempting to lure the veteran broadcaster away from NBC, where he presents its flagship programme, The Tonight Show, in the sort of bidding war usually reserved for a Major League baseball star. Leno's contract expires next September, and the battle to secure his future is pitching some of TV's largest egos against each other.

Rupert Murdoch's Fox network is reported to have sounded him out, while experts say CBS are eyeing him as a potential successor to David Letterman, who falls out of contract in 2010. Other contenders include ABC, Sony and CNN, which is searching for a candidate to replace 74-year-old Larry King, whose recently extended contract also runs out in two years' time.

The contest matters for two reasons. First, Leno's endearing brand of topical humour still packs a ratings punch that delivers several million viewers and generates most of NBC's estimated $300m (£151m) late-night revenue. Second, the host of The Tonight Show is like a monarch among America's chattering classes. Before Leno, who earns $27m a year, the job was held for three decades by the late Johnny Carson, who remains a revered figure in showbusiness circles.

In an ideal world, NBC would simply keep Leno until the end of his career, but circumstances make that almost impossible: in 2004, when the former stand-up comedian signed his most recent contract extension, he publicly predicted that by 2009 he would be ready for retirement. Anxious to ease the succession, NBC rushed to sign his replacement, Conan O'Brien. But to lure the Emmy award-winning comedian, the network promised that O'Brien would take over The Tonight Show by 2009 – and agreed to pay him $45m (£23m) if he didn't.

Unfortunately, Leno has reconsidered his plans for retirement and is unwilling to move to a less prestigious slot. That leaves NBC with a Catch 22-style dilemma: either it pays O'Brien an enormous sum in compensation, or it lets him take over Tonight – and kisses goodbye to Leno and his sizeable public following.

Those directly involved have mostly refused to discuss the affair. Leno's only public comment came last year, during an on-air conversation with his late-night rival at ABC, Jimmy Kimmel. Asked about his plans for 2009, he stammered, then claimed: "I haven't really thought about it." Ironically, an analysis last week by The Hollywood Reporter concludes that one of Leno's most likely next moves would now be to ABC, either to sit alongside Kimmel in a co-hosted show, or to have his own programme – shunting Kimmel to the 12.30am "graveyard" slot.

Failing that, the report said, Leno might either go to Fox, where "Rupert Murdoch could make him an offer he couldn't refuse", or go independent, producing his own show and syndicating it across the US through Sony Pictures TV. The least likely option would be for him to put his feet up and retire, though he could easily generate enough income to keep himself in the style to which he is accustomed by performing occasional stand-up gigs.

Whatever Leno chooses, it will be a far cry from the life he predicted on signing that fateful contract in 2004. He said then: "You can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher, or you can get out while the going is still good."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'