Are Jay Leno's days numbered as host of the "Tonight" show? And will he be replaced by David Letterman?
That's the latest speculation to surface in the never-ending NBC late-night soap opera.
In an article in the latest issue of the New Yorker, Peter Boyer, a former TV reporter for the New York Times, suggests that Mr. Leno's future hinges on how well the "Tonight" show does in the ratings during the important November sweeps (which determine local ad rates through the next quarter).
Right now, Mr. Leno is in a battle for first with ABC's "Nightline."
According to Mr. Boyer, NBC has already informed Mr. Leno of its plan to offer Mr. Letterman first crack at "Tonight" if Mr. Leno's ratings falter. Mr. Boyer writes, "Leno knows that if he has a terrible November, this may happen sooner rather than later."
But NBC said Monday that it is committed to Mr. Leno. "We're in it for the long haul with Leno," said NBC spokesman Curt Block. "This is a marathon, not a sprint."
Speculation about Mr. Letterman's future at NBC escalated with last week's announcement that the network has struck a deal with him, allowing him to negotiate now with prospective employers.
Mr. Letterman, who has never hidden his negative feelings about NBC, has been the focus of widespread speculation since NBC passed him over in favor of Mr. Leno as the successor to Johnny Carson. While his unhappiness with NBC is said to have diminished over the last few months, the "Late Night" host reportedly still wants to move up his show to at least an hour earlier than its current 12:30 a.m. start. Obviously, as things are now at NBC, that's impossible.
Mr. Boyer's article, "Letter From Burbank: Jay Leno's Hard Bargain," details the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led NBC to the firing in September of Helen Kushnick, Mr. Leno's long-time manager and executive producer of his "Tonight" show. As widely reported, NBC felt Ms. Kushnick's hardball booking tactics were hurting the show.