Late Night

Is Jay Leno Facing Another NBC Coup In Favor of Jimmy Fallon?

Hollywood is buzzing over a report that NBC could dump Jay in favor of Jimmy Fallon. Howard Kurtz on the déjà vu scenario.

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Hey, NBC apparently has a great idea: let’s get rid of Jay Leno—and let’s announce it way in advance.

Because that worked out so well last time.

With The Hollywood Reporter saying that the network may soon disclose that Leno will be pushed off the Tonight throne in 2014, we may be facing a replay of the great late-night debate that so entertained a downtrodden country last time around. This time Americans will face off over the burning question, would you rather watch Jimmy Fallon instead of Jay at 11:35?

I bet Conan O’Brien has some thoughts on this. What channel is he on again?

The report is unconfirmed, but “two high-level industry sources” wanted it known that NBC could announce in May that Fallon, who now hosts Late Night, will be moving to the bigger Tonight Show stage next year.

One industry official familiar with the late-night combat is skeptical of the story, noting that the reported rationale—that NBC wants to compete with Jimmy Kimmel for younger viewers—doesn’t hold up. ABC recently moved Kimmel to 11:35, bumping the venerable Nightline, but Kimmel has been losing in the coveted 18-to-49 demo to both Leno and to David Letterman, whose CBS show is in second place. (In overall ratings, Leno had 3.49 million viewers the week of Feb. 18, Letterman had 3.30 million, and Kimmel 2.53 million.)

A Leno spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter that “we don’t speculate on rumor.”

If NBC does make the move, that would leave Leno, who remains No. 1 in late night, hanging on for another season as a lame duck under the cloud of a younger successor having been chosen. Sound familiar?

“Here we go again,” says David Zurawik, media critic for The Baltimore Sun. “How much worse can NBC treat this guy before he goes away? They gave Leno’s time period away, then gave it back. Last year they cut his staff and his salary. NBC’s relationship with Leno is practically one of S&M.”

Eric Deggans, television columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, says the potential move makes sense.

“Fallon has proven a surprisingly hip and more appealing successor than Conan O'Brien and seems better suited for direct competition with Jimmy Kimmel for young viewers,” he says.

The question for NBC, says Deggans, is “how to avoid the train wreck of the last transition by ensuring everyone involved pretends it is their idea and a wonderful notion. How to handle competing with Leno when he moves to a cable channel? He won’t retire, and someone in cable land will surely offer him a job once whatever noncompete language he has in his NBC contract expires.”

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Ah, so many scenarios, so little time.

Let’s take a moment to review the playing field. Back in 2004, NBC had the brilliant idea of telling the world that Leno had signed on for five more years, after which he would happily pass the baton to Conan. When the appointed hour arrived, NBC moved Jay to a new 10 p.m. show as Conan tried to bring his quirky brand of humor to the more traditional Tonight Show audience.

Both moves were unmitigated disasters. Leno flopped badly in primetime, while O’Brien plunged in the ratings. They used their monologues to snipe at each other, with Letterman piling on Jay just for kicks.

In 2010, after just seven months, NBC made an ill-fated attempt to split the Tonight Show, after which Conan decamped (with a $32 million settlement to ease his pain) and the battered Leno returned to his late-night perch (where he resumed his reign as the top-rated comedian).

The TV critics largely sided with Conan, now with TBS, because they deem Leno to be a bland and stodgy comic.

“Leno is so yesterday,” Zurawik says. “He can still draw overall ratings, but you can't sell overall ratings the way you can sell 18 to 49 or even 25 to 54.” But Fallon “has buzz, edge, and young viewers.”

Kimmel made a point of slamming Leno to Rolling Stone when ABC moved him to 11:35: “He totally sold out. He was a master chef who opened a Burger King.”

Whatever the cognoscenti say, Leno usually has the last laugh, because he’s been winning his time slot for two decades.

Leno and Letterman both have contracts that expire in 2014. Despite speculation that Dave might be eyeing retirement, I’m told that Letterman wants to keep doing the Late Show for as long as CBS will have him. And Leno, whose idea of vacation is working the stand-up circuit, clearly wants to keep walking onto that Burbank stage until he’s carried off on a stretcher.

Still, Leno is 62, and NBC has to worry about keeping Fallon happy. Of course, that was the motivation for promising Conan a promotion five years in advance, to keep him from jumping to a rival network.

The overriding question: does NBC again want to replace the guy who keeps the Tonight Show on top with a hipper guy who might keep the show on top?