In yet another sign that NBC has no idea what it’s doing, The New York Times reports that the network plans to completely change up “The Tonight Show,” one of its few shows that actually wins its time slot. Though they won’t confirm anything, unnamed sources tell Times writer Bill Carter – author of the books “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night” and “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy” – that: 1.) the network will not renew current host Jay Leno’s contract when it is up in the fall of 2014; 2.) he will be replaced by Jimmy Fallon, who currently hosts “Late Night,” the show that immediately proceeds Leno’s; and 3.) after more than four decades based out of Hollywood, there are thoughts that the show will move to New York, where Fallon is currently based. NBC has yet to complete a new contract with Fallon, but it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t be on board with what would be a huge promotion for him. As an unnamed senior executive told Carter, “There is no way on earth that this is not going to happen.”
The shift will come as a surprise to few people who actually pay attention to network television, and according to the Hollywood Reporter it’s been in the works for awhile, with plans to make an official announcement in May. Leno has recently taken more shots than usual at NBC brass during his show, and it is clear to many analysts that the network was concerned about ABC’s recent move of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” from midnight to 11:35, putting it in direct competition with “The Tonight Show” and “Late Show with David Letterman.”
Since the shift, Kimmel’s show has consistently ranked third, but NBC had fears of losing a younger demographic to the 45-year-old host. Fallon, who over three years as the host of “Late Night” has proven himself a hit with that very demographic, is the natural successor TO LENO. As Lorne Michaels, whose show, “Saturday Night Live,” gave Fallon his start, told GQ for a recent profile of the host: “I’m not allowed to say it — yet. But I think there’s an inevitability to it. He’s the closest to Carson that I’ve seen of this generation.” It seems the network agrees, and the only question now is: When Fallon will take over? It could be the fall of 2014, once Leno’s contract is up, or, as some at the network are reportedly pushing for, early next year, when the Winter Olympics might be able to provide an immediate ratings boost for the rebooted “Tonight Show.”
This is, of course, not the first time NBC has moved to push out Leno. In 2010, former “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien took over “The Tonight Show,” while Leno, who was not ready to retire, got a primetime talk show – both shows struggled (although Vulture points out that O’Brien’s ratings were higher than what Leno is getting now). Seven months after that transition, O’Brien was out, Leno was back in the host’s chair, and the network received months of horrible publicity.
Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen here? As Grantland’s Andy Greenwald writes, Fallon is currently one of the network’s few highlights and, “Uprooting the entire show to antiseptic Los Angeles, or digging out the cobwebbed binder about what sort of humor ‘plays’ at 11:30 that sank Conan’s hopes and dreams like a stone, would be a colossal mistake.”
Fallon works because he is able to do something different than what Leno does, a luxury that will not be afforded to him an hour earlier. Vulture’s Joseph Adalian makes clear that it’s comfort that keeps viewers tuning into “The Tonight Show.” They know exactly what they are going to get, and with a new host, they won’t. “Instead of automatically bringing in a ton of new, younger viewers with Fallon, what NBC might actually end up doing is inviting the very, very loyal core of Leno viewers to try something new – like maybe that shiny young Kimmel fellow. Or that cranky Dave guy they’ve never been fond of.”
We still don’t know exactly what NBC has planned, but it doesn’t sound like the network’s rough times are anywhere near over.