Tonight Show Change: NBC Still Can't

Jay Leno came reasonably close in his interview with the New York Times about his plans to leave “The Tonight Show,” but he didn’t come right out and say the little words the network would no doubt like to hear: “I am officially retiring from television.”

For NBC, the playing field has shifted somewhat since it ushered Leno toward the door back in 2004, getting him to walk away from “The Tonight Show” five years later, because officials feared extending him any further would risk losing Conan O’Brien, whose team made clear a time-period promotion was the only way to forestall such a threat.

But Leno is being too modest when he says the phone’s not ringing — because it will — or that he’ll be content to just hit the road as a comedian, because based on his history, he won’t.

Of course, the landscape has shifted. Five years ago, NBC was terrified Leno would walk across the street and set up shop directly opposite O’Brien at 11:35 p.m. Today, the major options have dwindled with Jimmy Kimmel’s shift into that earlier hour, taking ABC out of the equation. (For all his tough talk now, remember Kimmel sounded enthusiastic about having Leno as a possible lead-in back then.)

Still, that doesn’t rule out Fox, or a syndicator, or any number of other options (I only half-jokingly suggested a reunion with Jeff Zucker at CNN) that would funnel attention away from Jimmy Fallon, and depending on the timeslot, set up another potential competitor in an already-crowded marketplace.

As for Fallon, the question remains whether he will be a broader, more palatable choice to the audience that has been watching Leno or, like O’Brien, watch the franchise’s total-viewer numbers decline precipitously. As always, such considerations can’t be viewed in a vacuum, and NBC would do well to improve its performance elsewhere if it wants the new host to have a fighting chance. O’Brien, certainly, wasn’t helped by having “The Jay Leno Show” as a lead-in, and Leno’s ability to stay on top ratings-wise despite NBC’s primetime struggles has been nothing short of heroic, all things considered.

Meanwhile, CBS and David Letterman should be smiling, or at least feeling rather self-satisfied about having avoided the drama that NBC has played out repeatedly during Letterman’s 20-year tenure.

And unlike Leno, when Letterman chooses to hang up his spurs, I suspect he’ll emulate Johnny Carson and walk away from TV entirely, preferring — as Carson famously put it – to “sit [at home] in Malibu and watch the hummingbirds mate.”

For now, NBC can stop beating its hummingbird wings, after having stonewalled the press to the point of exasperation on all sides.

Yet because of Leno’s workhorse nature and all the unknowns surrounding this latest baton pass, while NBC might have put the kids to bed, that hardly means the network can rest easy.

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