Nobody usually wins in a latenight-host baton pass, except perhaps the New York Times’ Bill Carter and his literary agent. So NBC was perhaps understandably bracing for public-relations headaches associated with elbowing Jay Leno aside — again — to make room for a newer model (this time Jimmy Fallon), even though we’re still roughly a half-year away from the actual transition.
So when NBC honchos met with assorted press at the TV Critics Assn. tour on Saturday, even they seemed surprise about fielding just one question during their formal presentation regarding latenight — “right under the wire,” as NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt put it wryly — asking about any second thoughts, or plans for Leno beyond “The Tonight Show.” (Per Greenblatt, the parties are talking, but as of now there are none.)
Nevertheless, the drumbeat of second-guessing is steadily growing. Last week, former NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer went public with complaints that NBC’s current management team must be poor students, telling the Daily Beast, “I don’t get it. It’s like nobody understands history. Here they take him off the air four years ago, and naturally he loses his impetus, and now he’s come back, and he’s kicking ass again — so let’s take him off.”
Those comments follow a ratings trend that has seen Leno assume a solid advantage over his latenight rivals, appearing to support Ohlmeyer’s basic “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” argument.
After a frenzy of rumors and coy denials, NBC finally confirmed its plans to signal the latenight bullpen in April, but Saturday marked the first chance for many out-of-town reporters to broach the subject in person. Fortunately, the current constituency of TCA is such that there’s really no such thing as a cohesive conversation or attention span, so the public Q&A produced little drama — also indicative of how lightly Leno is regarded by many in the press, having played the role of villain, despite his nice-guy persona, in past succession situations.
Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the sense NBC panicked a bit with the move of Jimmy Kimmel to 11:35 p.m. and, seeing the future, decided to make a switch prematurely. Because while the whole “Change from a position of strength” defense, which Greenblatt reiterated Saturday, might sound good, it generally flies in the face of almost anything else when it comes to tampering with a winning formula — especially since Leno has exhibited such a workhorse mentality and past desire to stay at the helm.
Greenblatt did laud Leno as “a great team player,” saying he hopes the comic will continue a relationship with NBC in the way Bob Hope did. Notably, that was also the initially stated plan for Johnny Carson, who made life easier on Leno by retiring from “The Tonight Show” and actually staying retired. Greenblatt also implied that Leno’s ratings surge might owe something to a well-spring related to the host’s announced departure, which seems questionable this far ahead of his (latest) exit.
It might all work out, of course, but as Ohlmeyer suggested, we’ve seen this movie (and read this book) before. And if this latest chapter in attempting to designate TV’s version of a royal heir is like most sequels, it promises to be even bigger and messier than the original before it’s over.