Putting the 'Late' in Late Night

Jay Leno will depart in five years; Craig Kilborn has already left. Doesn't anyone like late-night hosting anymore? No doubt these hosts have an obvious concern: No one has any idea what the TV advertising picture will look like in the next decade.

On a personal level, late-night hosts seem to make some decent money.

Leno earlier this year signed a $100 million, five-year contract with NBC for "The Tonight Show." Leno will be 60 in 2009 and will have held the position for 17 years, which is a far cry from the 30 years that Johnny Carson put in as host of the show.

After that, Conan O'Brien, who currently has the 12:30 p.m. time slot hosting "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and makes $8 million a year, will take over.

"I guess the job is getting to him," quipped David Letterman, last night on his talk show. "I wonder if I can get a tape over there."



Maybe when hell freezes over. But considering Letterman's high-profile battle with Leno for the "Tonight Show" job in 1992 - portrayed in a book and an HBO movie - it's not likely. But Letterman may not need a cold day to look for success.

The real game -- which didn't get much play in the press -- is what advertising will look like five years from now. Currently, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" brings more than $200 million a year in advertising. "Late Show with David Letterman" brings in about $160 million. Somewhat less goes to ABC's "Nightline" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

Though now a top-notch talent - after the early years of being somewhat suspect by the critics - O'Brien might be taking over a different kind of network in five years, with a different revenue picture. NBC, which has been on top since the late 80s, might not be in the same position. Much of "The Tonight Show" ratings and advertising dollars are linked to NBC's primetime performance.

Already CBS is nipping at its heels - especially in surveying that network's recent opening week win on Thursday night against NBC. And, as if right on cue, "Late Show with David Letterman" has been off to its best start since the 2001-2002 season.

Letterman has an affinity for O'Brien - the show he used to have at NBC - and he regularly goes and makes an appearance. So maybe he'll be easy on O'Brien. Maybe the two will do something completely different in late night, which will help both their ratings and advertising.

Surely we can expect a 'Top 10' list from Letterman in the next several days. Ten reasons why Leno is leaving and O'Brien is coming:

No. 1: O'Brien can get a guest like Letterman on the "The Tonight Show."

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