Several years back when CBS News was flailing mightily, the suggestion of putting Jon Stewart in Walter Cronkite’s old chair came Leslie Moonves’ way. Maybe because of a feeling of desperation -- though probably to grab some ink -- Moonves didn’t dismiss it.
At the time, the Moonves-led CBS was part of Viacom, owner of Comedy Central.
"Jon Stewart is part of our company,” Moonves was quoted as saying in 2005. “We speak to him regularly about all sorts of different things."
Now – after Katie Couric beat Stewart out by a nose -- CBS has gone about as far away from Comedy Central as possible with news, trying to outdo NBC and ABC with hard-hitting reporting, not Stewart-style hard-hitting video clips exposing farcical politicians.
Of course, the CBS News anchor post never would have happened, but it’s fun to ponder how Stewart at 6:30 would have gone down. Clearly, he couldn’t also run a super PAC mocking the political system or lob vitriol at a former House speaker running for president.
But Stewart’s inherent skepticism might have brought more perspective to a newscast. So long as he approached the job from a point of neutrality, reporting the news while raising thoughtful questions about issues, while pointing out inconsistencies or self-interests might have brought needed influence. The country could use whatever help it can get in nudging Congress and the President off gridlock.
In about a year and a half, Stewart could actually move away from “The Daily Show” after 13-plus years reporting from its New York world headquarters. After “Indecision 2012” hijinks with Stephen Colbert, Stewart's contract is due to expire at the end of June 2013.
He recently turned 50. Would he seek another challenge or platform? Certainly, he would be in high demand, giving a network the opportunity to nab his valuable young-male audience.
At the NATPE event Tuesday, Viacom executive Doug Herzog, who oversees Comedy Central, joked that he spends some nights fretting about the network without its 11 p.m. anchor.
“I worry constantly about a future without Jon Stewart because that looks like a future without me,” he said.
Yet, Herzog said it would be hard for Stewart to find another environment – with the creative freedoms, pairing with Colbert and other dynamics – that makes a better fit for his show. If Stewart were to leave, it would be to go in a different direction.
“I would be surprised if he’d want to do this somewhere else,” Herzog said. “It would be that he’d want to do something else.”
It’s unlikely money would be a factor. Comedy Central has plenty to offer and if it wants to launch a third personality-driven show at midnight, as Herzog suggested, it would be tough to do that without Stewart starting the back-to-back-to-back. (Colbert’s deal is up at the end of this year, which could affect that as well.)
So, with the CBS News chair filled, what else might Stewart want to do that would take him elsewhere?
Join the “Monday Night Football” booth? Not to compare the two, but Dennis Miller proved that’s probably a non-starter.
Follow Rachel Maddow on MSNBC blasting the right wing? Stewart’s been trashing cable news shout-fests for years, so it’d be an improbable act of hypocrisy and he’d have to stomach jeering clips of him served up by his “Daily Show” replacement.
Host a late-night show on NBC? Maybe five years ago. Now, a phone call to Conan would probably end those thoughts. Then again, NBC is under new management.
Replace Ryan Seacrest on “American Idol”? Not sure he could keep a straight face.
Replace Ryan Seacrest after he fails in replacing Matt Lauer on the “Today” show? Getting warmer.
Take over for Piers Morgan on CNN for a prime-time talk show? That just might fit.