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Why NBC should move slowly in replacing Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show



Few people in show business get less sympathy for their woes than Tonight Show host Jay Leno.

From stories of how he eavesdropped on conference calls among NBC brass deciding who would take over Tonight from Johnny Carson, to the way he publicly supported and eventually undercut his last successor Conan O'Brien, Leno's tenacious grip on his job has earned him few friends in showbiz.

That's why the entertainment press seems particularly gleeful in reporting that NBC is developing plans to replace Leno with his current 12:30 p.m. successor, Jimmy Fallon. A notoriously good guy in a cutthroat business, Fallon enjoys all the goodwill Leno does not, making columnists like me savor the possibilities of seeing him move the Tonight Show back to the Manhattan location, as reported today in the New York Times, where it started more than 50 years ago.

But I think, once again, NBC could be making a big mistake by pushing out Leno too soon, much as some people might prefer to see him sent packing right now.


He still does well in the ratings. The reason why the O'Brien-for-Leno transition didn't make sense remains a reality; Leno still does well in the ratings, beating both longtime rival David Letterman and ABC's new upstart Jimmy Kimmel. Of course, NBC fears Kimmel may corner the market on young viewers and scoop up the most profitable part of the late night audience. But so far, that hasn't happened.

Where will older viewers go? When Fallon taes over the Tonight Show -- and various sources are saying it is now just a matter of time, expected by fall 2014 -- NBC and ABC will be locked in a war for young viewers with two hosts from a generation younger than Leno and Letterman. Which leaves older viewers (age 50 and up, by network sensibilities) with just one option. Letterman's CBS show might get many of the traditional late night viewers who haven't yet warmed to Fallon's Millenial vibe, hurting both competing shows.

Who will host the 12:30 a.m. hour behind a Fallon-led Tonight Show? In one sense, there's a long list of young comics available to try taking over the Late Night slot behind an 11:35 p.m. Fallon show. But that also means there's really no front runners for the gig, which could be a problem. Right now, Saturday Night Live host Seth Myers has the pedigree and presumed close relationship with SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, who championed Fallon as Late Night host and seems to have more juice at NBC than ever. I wonder if the network might consider a young turk like Daniel Tosh or a left-field choice like Community star and The Soup host Joel McHale.

Where will Leno land? If there's any lesson to be learned from what happened with O'Brien, its that NBC likely must cast out Leno, whose heroic work ethic will make him a formidable competitor no matter where he lands. As a former fan, I'd love to see him land at a cable channel which would push him to drop his populist shtick and return to doing comedy for comedy's sake. What would a Leno show on, say, HBO or Showtime, freed from the need to pander for audience and given free reign to be explicit, look like?

There's no doubt that visions of a New York-based Tonight Show led by Fallon, who has managed to grow into a late night host who completely embodies a fun, entertaining Millenial attitude onscreen, is exciting.

But NBC better be careful how it gets there. Or it could be stuck with another reputation-shattering, Conan-style transition debacle.    

[Last modified: Monday, April 1, 2013 6:40pm]


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