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."

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