Ah, the mainstream media. You can always count on them to get to the point. When the hoopla started about how NBC intended to replace Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon, everyone focused on THE story: Why was NBC so eager to dump the late-night talk-show host with the best TV ratings, someone who defeated David Letterman so often that it was a genuine media event when CBS topped NBC?
I think the far sexier story is the once lingering beneath the surface, which the entertainment journalists have spent markedly less time pondering: What will Jay do next?
What's that? You assumed that Leno would quip his way into a comedy retirement home and only come out to tell yuks on the stage of some night club? Guess again. He'll be back.
Don't think for a second that Leno will go quietly. He seems to enjoy his job well enough and he has always had a ferocious work ethic. Word is, he banks his gargantuan NBC salary and prefers, in a Calvinist fever, to live off his earnings as an ongoing nightclub comedian. Leno clearly loves to make people laugh, and now he has another motive for getting a new job: To stick it to NBC..
I believe that Jay Leno will surely exact revenge on his soon-to-be former employer, NBC. The network's rationale for putting Fallon in the big chair is to tap into his reservoir of young viewers, Madison Avenue's dream demographic. What a cutthroat world! Leno not only stays No. 1 forever in his time slot but he paves the way for Fallon to succeed in the next hour (as he helped to do with Conan O'Brien). But that is not good enough any more. He must also exhibit growth with kids half his age. Of course, Fallon is just about in their age group so it all makes good business sense.
Why do I think Leno will get his revenge? He thinks that way. He is an extremely prideful star. He fought like a banshee to fend off Letterman and replace Johnny Carson in some cutthroat dealings. Somewhere, Carson must be smiling as NBC dumps Leno for Fallon for the same reason it pushed out Carson to make room for Jay.
Did you read Bill Carter's absorbing book, "The Late Shift? It told the saga of the Carson-Leno-Letterman melodrama in the early 1990s. What it really showed was how much Leno plays to win, whether or not you believe NBC kowtowed to the wishes of his hard-charging manager or that Leno himself helped orchestrate the strategy to get Carson's job for himself.
Leno hasn't lost his fastball for anything, not for hard work, for ambition to be No. 1 in the ratings or in his ability to make people chuckle. Above all, he has kept up his desire to be treated like the king of late night, not some doddering relic who is merely keeping the chair arm for Jimmy Fallon. Look for Leno to come back in glory.
As Entertainment Weekly has conjectured, Leno could replace Letterman if Dave decides to pack it in in 2014. Leno could also move over to Fox, which has a special incentive to obtain his services. Fox will soon be free of the burden of News Corp.'s publishing interests and the company, already maintains a thriving cable-news operation and will soon be rolling out a sports channel to rival ESPN. If it could add the potential ratings firepower of Jay Leno, Fox would have a lot to talk about -- and Leno could try to stick it to NBC (and Jimmy Fallon).
It's not nice to cross Jay Leno because he has a way of getting what he wants. NBC may soon find that out.