There's a prominent report in the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday morning that says CNN chief Jeff Zucker has approached Jay Leno about a late night show after his "Tonight" reign ends early next year. No surprise -- it's been speculated about often, and an approach by Zucker makes all the sense in the world. (I'm kidding, kidding. Can't you take a joke?)
After all, CNN is a news network the last time I checked, and Jeff did fire him, rehire him once before. (Now there's a guy you want to be aligned with.)
But seriously, folks, and this is a serious post: What's next for Jay?
It's a list-y time of year, so let's lay the possibilities out in a list. But first, we must make some assumptions.
1. That Jay must be in front of the camera. That his devotion to the medium is so complete, so profound, so much of what and who he is, that the minute a camera is turned off, he disappears -- as if swallowed by some breach in the time-space continuum of Universal City.
2. That TV is an immediate option. That's not entirely clear, but I would submit that Jay can do pretty much whatever he wants. If NBC thought this out, it probably tied him to a deal that keeps him at the network through 2014 in some capacity, which means he is certainly free to consider one of the NBC suite of networks, and that's quite a suite. But it doesn't likely mean he's able to jump instantly to a new employer. But ... on the other hand ... if Jay thought this out, probably as a condition of any new contract, he stipulated that he could do exactly that. After all, he's known for years he had a target on his back -- why agree to anything NBC wants?
And 3. (which ties into No. 1.) Jay really does want to get back in front of a studio and camera, if only to prove that he's still got it, always will.
So, assuming the sky's the limit and that Jay can do pretty much whatever he wants, let's lay out some options. They might even be realistic ones!
1. CNN. OK, let's assume he does think about this. But ... why? A small audience, not inclined to watch Jay anyway, and his role -- assuming it would approximate his "Tonight" one -- would muddle what CNN still putatively stands for.
2. Fox News. A better fit, given that he's assumed to have more of a Red State appeal. (Dave, on the other hand, is All Blue.) But it would be a huge comedown for Leno -- as would CNN. The audience, in significant numbers, probably wouldn't be there for him.
3. Netflix. Now we're getting somewhere. A daily streamable Leno show, not confined to late night, would be a radical adjustment to the Netflix model, which is constantly evolving anyway. Jay would appeal to many subscribers, add others, and be allowed to do whatever he wants -- even adjust the size of his show if he's of a mind to. Tying himself to Netflix is the equivalent of tying himself to a flying locomotive; the danger is that it''s too radical, and Netflix (not of a mind to release data) treats Jay as just another commodotized product that may or may not be a hit. This may all be too vague for meat-and-potatoes Jay.
4. ESPN. A Disney alliance is intriguing if only because it positions Leno for a role on multiple networks -- this one the most appealing. But one problem immediately presents itself: Why have a non-sports program on a sports network? This would bug viewers, for obvious reasons, and mybe bug Jay, who would be a lonely island in an ocean of jock talk. But because ESPN is such a huge destination, Jay just might be able to live with this -- especially if his show were to be simulcast across the ESPN networks empire.
5. An online streaming show. You know! Kind of like one of those that Amazon or Hulu now do. They're good shows (well some of them are) and people do watch. A Jay Hulu show would keep him in the NBC family, but I think it would still represent a pretty sizable decline in stature for our man. Jay's a broadcast guy, first and foremost. This idea is appealing to a newbie but probably not a realistic one for him in any way.
6. Fox. Always gets into these conversations, but there's no indication from what I can tell that Fox has any interest at all. Fox affiliates, or some of them, have said they'd clear the deck for Jay, at 11, but Fox seems to have other ideas right now and "late night" doesn't appear to be one of them. (Yes, there was talk with Conan, but he presumably squared with their demographics.)
7. CBS. Leno on CBS in some ways makes almost more sense than Letterman on CBS. This is a network that has traditionally appealed to the swath of the country that is most comfortable with Jay; its audience is certainly older, more sedentary, more at ease with a Leno-style talk show. But ... there's nowhere for Jay to go here. Or is there? A Jay at 12:30 move would seem inconceivable, if only because CBS has a pretty good guy there right now -- Craig Ferguson -- and because Dave ostensibly controls the time period. To an extent, this question might be phrased this way: What would Dave want? He may want to have Leno involved in some capacity. That old enmity now seems long gone; both have long since proved whatever they needed to prove and presumably have moved on. But again: What would Leno do here?
But I will take my leave from this post with that question hanging. Jay at CBS -- in some impossible-to-define capacity -- seems to be the most intriguing possibility of them all.