When powerful music manager Irving Azoff in October joined the team of comedian/talk show host Chelsea Handler, the announcement stated the duo’s intentions. “The host of E!’s top-rated late night show, Chelsea Lately, Handler is busy positioning herself for life after her current contract expires at the end of 2014,” it read. That “positioning” has featured exploratory meetings with production companies and other cable networks. It also has included pointed comments dropped by Handler about her dissatisfaction with E!, recently referring to the network a “a sad, sad place to live” and “a failure” on The Howard Stern Show. Now, after weeks of speculation that the Handler was plotting an exit, Azoff has told The Hollywood Reporter that Handler indeed “intends to leave” when her contract expires at the end of the year. Theoretically, that could be posturing, which is part of any renegotiation where the stakes are this high, but given the fact that Handler specifically hired Asoff to plan her life post-E! and that the rift between the her and E! appears to run pretty deep, the intention appears to be real. That has been confirmed by sources.
E!, which went through bruising renegotiations with Handler the last time around, would not discuss her future. “Chelsea has nine months left on her contract and E! will not comment on the future of Chelsea Lately at this time,” the network said in a statement. That last contentious renegotiation was completed in 2011, more than a year before Handler’s previous contract was to expire, and resulted in a $25 million two-year extension. In addition to Chelsea Lately, Handler’s Borderline Amazing Prods. also produces a weekly E! show starring Chelsea Lately regular Ross Matthews. The company used to have Chelsea Lately companion After Lately, with the network now exploring pop culture-themed After Party for the 11:30 PM slot. (Of course, if that project gets a green light and Chelsea Lately goes away, it could be slotted at 11 PM.)
Chelsea Lately was developed and launched by the previous E! regime led by Ted Harbert when the network was still part of Comcast. Her previous renewal was one of E!’s first deals after the network became part of NBCUniversal at the beginning of 2011. Soon after that, Chelsea Lately was moved into a bigger space, taking over Studio 1 on the Universal lot, which had just underwent a $50 million renovation to house The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien for its nine-month run.
Chelsea Lately‘s ratings have slid lately. Between 2010, the year before her last renegotiation with E!, and 2013, the show’s viewership has dropped 32% to 572,000, with the declines extending into 2014. Handler has been blaming E!’s primetime performance. However, the network has been on a five-month upswing, posting year-to-year primetime growth in total viewers (+12%) and persons/women 18-34 (+17%/+23%) from October 2013 through February 2014. Over the same period, Chelsea Lately has dropped 14% in total viewers, -32% in adults 18-34 and -25% in women 18-34. It is clear that E! brass were not going to be as open to paying Handler’s ask as they may have been two and a half years ago.
Still, Chelsea Lately has been part of E!’s legacy, the only late-night show hosted by a woman and the first successful traditional late-night talker to launch outside of the broadcast networks. (Comedy Central’s The Daily Show had been framed more like a fake news telecast, gradually expanding its talk show quotient.) Unlike The Tonight Show, Late Night or The Daily Show, which are established franchises that have gone through multiple hosts, Chelsea Lately and TBS’ Conan are built around the hosts, carry their names and are produced by them, making it impossible for the shows to continue if the hosts leave, as would be the case with Handler, who can shop Chelsea Lately elsewhere.
She won’t be without challenges. While most late-night talk show hosts have built likeable personas, Handler is outspoken, brash and racy, just like her edgy comedy brand. Her combativeness was on display during a recent very contentious interview with Piers Morgan. That makes Handler better suited for a cable network or digital platform (In an interview, she suggested Netflix as a potential new home should she leaves E!) than broadcast syndication. Comedy Central and TBS are well stocked in the late-night department at the moment (Conan O’Brien’s company controls the post-Conan slot, so even if The Pete Holmes Show doesn’t continue beyond the current order, bringing in Chelsea Lately would be complicated.) FX/FXX has been without a late-night franchise after the cancellation of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. Handler’s very high price point would likely make her show prohibitive for smaller cable networks such as comedy-centered IFC.
Here is what Azoff said when he officially began representing Handler in October after a stint in an unofficial advisory capacity. (He also serves an adviser to Borderline Amazing): “She is an original and there’s no one else like her in comedy and on television. She can be a total bitch, but I’ve dealt with a lot of those before. Chelsea is damn good at what she does and has an undeniably strong brand. She and the guys have exciting ideas for the future of her career and production company.”