Are the late-night TV wars about to heat up again? Bowing out of the musical-chairs game that the networks have played for the last several years with a small pool of talent and an even smaller set of late-night timeslots, Craig Kilborn announced Thursday that he's quitting as host of CBS' ''The Late, Late Show,'' after five years spent following David Letterman in the wee hours. He'll leave his perch sometime in the next month, leaving an opening that CBS will fill with... who?
According to trade reports, CBS and Kilborn have been negotiating all summer on a renewal of his contract. ''It was easily the greatest job I've had,'' said the 41-year-old, who came to the job in 1999 after hosting ''The Daily Show'' on Comedy Central. ''CBS was very generous in their offer to re-sign me. But I simply want to try something new. I can now focus on writing and producing different television projects I haven't had time for.'' He added, ''And this is cool: I will continue to wear makeup in my everyday life.''
CBS will now have to scramble to find someone to fill that post-Letterman slot. At the top of the network's wishlist, no doubt, is NBC's Conan O'Brien, whose ratings in that time period outstrip Kilborn's or those of third-place Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. But O'Brien is contracted to NBC through December 2005. Plus, he's unlikely to move unless CBS can assure him that he'd get Letterman's earlier timeslot when Dave retires. Given ''Late Show'''s ratings surge this summer, however, Letterman's retirement seems an equally remote possibility. Letterman, of course, also produces ''The Late, Late Show,'' so it's in part up to him who'll take over Kilborn's chair.