Rick Ludwin has been through plenty of regime changes in his 29 years at NBC (he’s been there long enough to work for two bosses named Silverman).
But nothing in his experience compares to the buzz and the scrutiny generated by a transition at the top of “The Tonight Show.” The first phase of the transition from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien began last week with O’Brien’s sign off after nearly 16 years on NBC’s “Late Night,” and it continues on Monday with O’Brien’s successor, Jimmy Fallon, making his debut at 12:35 a.m.
As much as NBC has been in the spotlight the past few months with its latenight shuffle, and Leno-at-10 decision, it’s been a far, far less traumatic than the last time around, when Leno took the baton from Johnny Carson in May 1992, according to Ludwin, who is NBC’s exec veep of late night and primetime series.
“This is a more peaceful transfer of power than the last time around,” Ludwin says. “Nothing could surpass the intensity of the coverage of Carson, who was such a person of distinction in our country.”
Ludwin and Lorne Michaels are the only two people in senior roles at NBC who were around during the Carson-Leno-Letterman scrum. This time around, Ludwin tried to prep his colleagues as best he could.
“‘The Tonight Show’ is an American institution. It’s the gold standard of late night shows, and there’s a bond between people and this show,” he says. “And these transitions only happen once every ice age, so of course there’s an intense interest.”
Ludwin spent the past week in Gotham observing Fallon and “Late Night” exec producer Michaels at work on a week of test shows prior to Monday’s on-air bow. The live aud was very receptive, and Fallon’s style is already distinctive from O’Brien’s, Ludwin said. The show is also very attuned to melding interactive elements into the telecast and on its website because “Jimmy is of the generation of multitasking,” Ludwin says.