Over a telephone conference line from the observation deck at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters in New York, Jimmy Fallon sounded a bit like a nervous teacher meeting a class for the first time.
But midway through the news conference Monday confirming that the former Saturday Night Live star will succeed Conan O'Brien in NBC's 12:30 a.m. time slot in 2009, the comic was cracking jokes like an old-school standup working in the Catskills.
"In my kindergarten yearbook, the photo said 'Most likely to take over for David Letterman.' … My principal was Nostradamus," Fallon cracked.
The announcement kicked off TV's annual upfront week, in which the major networks unveil their fall schedules to sponsors — and the world — to spur early advertising sales.
This year NBC broke with tradition and unveiled its schedule weeks ago. It used its usual upfront-weekday to focus on Fallon. ABC reveals its schedule this morning, followed by CBS and Fox.
Joined by NBC executives and executive producer Lorne Michaels, Fallon said he didn't know a lot about his new gig. Like when it's going to start. Whether he'll have a band and/or a sidekick. And what the show's name will be, beyond including the term Late Night.
NBC's unresolved relationship with outgoing Tonight Show host Jay Leno — whom O'Brien is scheduled to replace next year — has made much of the transition uncertain.
"Everyone wants Jay Leno to remain a part of the NBC family," Michaels said.
NBC announced the Tonight Show switch in 2006. In July, NBC executives were making nervous noises about keeping Leno happy, indicating they hadn't figured out a new role for him. Nightmare scenarios have Leno — the top-rated late-night host, who seems too young and too much the workaholic to retire — heading to ABC for a post-Nightline spot, or to Fox, which does not have a successful late night program.
The Fallon announcement adds pressure. But Michaels seemed to downplay that notion, emerging as the unlikeliest of programing powerhouses at fourth-place NBC. When Fallon's show debuts, Michaels will likely have executive-producer credit on four key NBC shows: Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey's buzzed-about sitcom 30 Rock, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and Fallon's Late Night.
Michaels — who picked Fallon for the 12:30 a.m. slot, just as he picked O'Brien in 1993 — emphasized several times that new late-night programs get boatloads of criticism in their early years. At least Fallon, who was a star on SNL and moved on to an erratic film career, is better-known than O'Brien was when he debuted in late night 15 years ago.
"We're in a big fight here in network television," Michaels said. "The enemy isn't other networks but Internet videos and (the video game) Guitar Hero. … The (Late Night) show has to be re-invented, and if you're up for the challenge, it's an exciting time."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.