How Letterman’s Exit Could Spawn Conan vs. Jay Part 2

NBC’s handling of the last two “Tonight Show” transitions could come back to bite it — hard

David Letterman is retiring at a time when both Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien will be available to replace him.

That’s potentially very bad news for NBC, which let both former “Tonight Show” hosts go. And it raises the messy possibility of Leno and O’Brien yet again fighting it out for a late-night show — except this time on CBS.

Also read: Watch David Letterman Announce His ‘Late Show’ Retirement (Video)

O’Brien is in the fourth year of a five-year contract with TBS, the home of his new show, “Conan.” NBC entertainment chairman chief Bob Greenblatt has said he wants to stay in business with Leno, but his replacement by Jimmy Fallon would seem to leave him free to go elsewhere.

Leno would seem an especially bright prospect for CBS because he retired from “Tonight” on top. And CBS, with the oldest viewers in broadcast TV, may not be as fixated on youth as NBC was when it replaced Leno with Fallon.

Also read: David Letterman Retiring: 11 Most Memorable Career Moments (Video)

Craig Ferguson is also an obvious candidate to replace Letterman, after following his show on CBS for years.

Then there’s Chelsea Handler, who TheWrap just reported plans to leave E! when her contract expires. She could be the first woman since Joan Rivers to host a late-night show on a broadcast network. And she, too, would be a part of the NBC family gone away: NBCUniversal owns E!.

And no sooner did this story post than a reader tweeted #DraftEllen. The daytime star and two-time Oscar host would be another strong contender, if she opted to jump to late night.

Also read: Bill Murray Invaded ‘Letterman’ to Tell Jokes, Take a Selfie With Lady Gaga (Video)

CBS might also try to lure one of Comedy Central’s hosts. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both perform well at 11 and 11:30 p.m., respectively. And Chris Hardwick is rising fast with his show, “@Midnight.”

Two years ago, FX’s “Louie” devoted a three-part episode to imagining what would happen if Letterman ever decided to retire. Louis CK, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld competed for the gig in a bizarre contest that came complete with David Lynch cameos.

NBC could be in for a similarly Lynchian nightmare if O’Brien and Leno — two talents it let go — come back to joust nightly with Fallon.

On “Louie,” CK discovered that the three-way bakeoff between him, Rock and Seinfeld was just a way for CBS to negotiate a better deal with Letterman. In real life, Letterman’s retirement will likely be good news for any potential replacements.

O’Brien could use the prospect of departing for CBS to extract more favorable terms from TBS. And NBC might try to lock in a quick deal with Leno to avoid having to compete with him.

Who knows? Maybe CK was on to something, and we should add Rock and Seinfeld to the list of potential replacements, too. They are also products of NBC, given their success on “Saturday Night Live” and “Seinfeld.” Neither has made any mention of wanting a new talk show — but then again, this is the first time in two decades a plum slot has been open on CBS.