Chelsea Handler vs. E!: What's Next for the Late-Night Host?

Manager Irving Azoff says she "intends to leave" the network, but new talks are set and options could be limited.

This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Chelsea Handler and E! seem increasingly unlikely to kiss and make up. Still, after Handler's manager Irving Azoff told THR on March 29 that she "intends to leave" the network when her contract is up in December, the comic was back in her studio this week hosting Chelsea Lately as if nothing had happened.

Azoff, taking a break in Cabo San Lucas,says he intends to meet with E! chief Suzanne Kolb upon his return, and it appears both sides are prepared to stick it out at least through year's end. Whether the door still is ajar for Handler to remain at E! despite her declining ratings and open disparagement of the network might become clearer as Azoff sorts through what he hopes will be appealing choices. Should none appear, one option that is said to appeal to Handler is for E! to allow her to produce shows at the 10 o'clock hour leading into her 11 p.m. show.

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Insiders think Handler, riding high with the No. 1 New York Times best-seller Uganda Be Kidding Me, is all but forcing E! and NBCUniversal cable chief Bonnie Hammer to replace her. But the network might be reluctant to do so because Handler has celebrity contacts who otherwise might not appear on E! Sandra Bullock was a guest in 2012, and Jennifer Aniston gave her first post-engagement interview to Handler in 2013. Such appearances boost ratings and enhance the network's profile.

Handler has accused E! of incompetent programming and blamed weak lead-ins for ratings declines. In a March 5 appearance on Howard Stern’s radio show, she described E! as “a sad, sad place to live,” adding, “They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no ideas. It’s a failure.” But according to Nielsen, E! has been on an upswing in primetime for the past five months. February was up 12 percent in total viewers. During the same five-month period, Chelsea Lately declined 14 percent in total viewers. While pulling down about $9 million a year, Handler delivers average viewership of 572,000 a night -- a decline from 839,000 in 2010. Ad revenue also has dipped more than 15 percent to $134.5 million, says Kantar Media.

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Nonetheless, E! is not outwardly in a rush to replace her. She is the only female host in the male-dominated genre of late-night comedy and has a younger and more female audience than her rivals. As to how Handler would replace E!, Azoff says she has "at least seven suitors," though it's unclear how broadly he defines that term. While her reps at CAA have set meetings at Sony TV, Lionsgate and FX, sources involved say such meetings might result more from courtesy than genuine interest. Says one exec, "I don't know if anybody's going to pay her as much as E!"

Twitter: @KimMasters

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