NBC’s Jay Leno Problem: Casting a Shadow Over Jimmy Fallon’s Launch

Bill Maher issues defense of Jay
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Until the current host sets his plans, the network is going to face unwanted distractions

The idea that Jay Leno might be wooed by various suitors for a new TV gig creates a problem for NBC. Not necessarily the threat that its current “The Tonight Show” host is going to go into business opposite Jimmy Fallon, but that the uncertainty surrounding the future TV Academy Hall of Famer will overshadow, or at least distract attention from, its introduction of Jimmy Fallon as his replacement.

It should come as no surprise that producers and networks — including CNN CEO Jeff Zucker, Leno’s one-time boss — would be kicking the tires regarding Leno’s future plans. Indeed, the idea of CNN using Leno to prop up its sluggish primetime lineup seemed pretty obvious, or at least worth considering, back when the Fallon handoff was being announced last spring.

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen this movie before — you know, when Conan O’Brien got the job, and his ascent was plagued by the “Where’s Jay going to go?” speculation. Ultimately, NBC got cold feet and decided to keep Leno by giving him the 10 p.m. hour, a decision that will forever leave behind doubts regarding whether O’Brien ever truly received a clean shot at making “The Tonight Show” his own.

NBC isn’t going to repeat that mistake, but everything about the Fallon rollout has a vaguely familiar whiff to it — from using the Winter Olympics as its springboard to trying to provide the new guy exposure in primetime, including an upcoming Jan. 5 special featuring highlights from his later-night program.

As I’ve stated before, the only way Leno won’t be a distraction is if he decides to go sit on a beach somewhere (not likely), or content himself to playing comedy clubs and eschewing regular TV exposure. But unlike Johnny Carson — who decided he’d done it all, and retired to Malibu to watch hummingbirds mate — Leno’s work ethic suggests he’ll remain on the stage. It’s just a question of where and how.

There were only two solutions to that: Let Leno host “The Tonight Show” until he came to NBC and said enough’s enough; or actually convince him to take the deal that was initially floated regarding Carson, where he becomes this generation’s Bob Hope, hosting periodic specials.

Barring that, as much as NBC would like to keep the spotlight trained on Fallon, the Leno part of the latenight equation — as the one aspect that remains unsettled — is more intriguing, and thus destined to continue to exhaust a lot of the oxygen surrounding “The Tonight Show” baton pass until it’s officially resolved.

And if I was David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel or anyone else with a stake in their success, I couldn’t be happier.

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  1. Maxwell says:

    Half of the Tonight Show audience is just waiting to see where Leno ends up, and they’ll be right behind him.

  2. Brenda Lambert says:

    I am outraged that Jay is being removed. Who at NBC made that decision? My husband and I will never watch Jimmy. We will be forced to watch David Letterman as a distant second choice. Jimmy is jumpy, fragmented, frantic in his desperation to be funny. Jay, on the other hand, is funny and relates to his viewers. This network has altered our late night ritual forever. We have looked forward to Jay’s monologue. CNN should sign Jay with them.

    • Ashlee says:

      Brenda, Fallon also relates to his viewers – they are simply a different set of viewers – younger viewers who enjoy humor that incorporates current pop culture and musical bits. Both he and Kimmel bring in millions of hits online with their viral videos, and that medium brings in ad revenue as well. I hope you enjoy watching Letterman. He is far more clever and makes more astute observations about current events than Jay. I do not think that Fallon deserves anyone’s ire. He is an incredibly kind person and has handled this transition announcement with humor and graciousness.

      • Maxwell says:

        I have to assume Ashlee is an intern at Letterman’s Late Show, no one seriously believes Letterman is more ‘clever’ then Paul Schaeffer, no less a Leno or Kimmel. Dave sits bumbling through every interview puzzled and confused, and acts like his teleprompter is written in Russian during the monologue.

      • sugar says:

        Do not agree with you Ashlee. My group of friends is young and we all prefer Jay Leno to any of the other comediens except for one husband who likes David Letterman. Funny is funny, and I don’t know why you have to peg Leno as being for “older” viewers just because he isn’t “young” enough. Funny knows no age.

      • Harry Mc says:

        Excellent observation Ashlee. While Brenda has every right to be outraged at NBC, as they are entirely responsible for this decision, slamming Fallon is really unnecessary. I don’t find Fallon, Kimmel, or Conan to be particularly to my taste but knocking any of them for providing what their fans want is out of line. There are other choices out there and I personally think that Letterman is at the top of his game. Anyone who has been a Letterman fan through the years can confirm that David had his early years of jumpy, fragmented and frantic desperation but he has matured into a much different talent.

  3. DJ says:

    Jimmy Fallon is a childish idiot. Expect ratings to crater in that time slot! How far things have fallen from the classiness and talent of Johnny Carson!

  4. Michael Co says:

    Here’s another idea. Give Jay 90 minutes on Saturday prime time. Jack Paar had a successful Saturday night show many years ago. All of the major broadcast networks have pretty much stopped putting original programming on Saturday which should prove an advantage for a new, possibly live, show. Saturday demo is already old (Leno’s audience) so this might be very attractive to them. This would keep Leno at NBC and prevent him from a late night slot elsewhere in direct competition with Fallon.

    • Lawrence Parylla says:

      I do not want Jay to have anything to do with NBC, why would Jay want to stay with a network that mistreated him. Jay’s work ethic would not allow himself to work one day a week, heck he does then the “The Tonight Show” 5 shows a week he travels to different parts of the country to do his night club act. Jay would not be satisfied with one day a week. The perfect happy ending to this situation would be for Jay to move to FOX or ABC and crush Fallon in the ratings (he already is beating Letterman).

      Ironically when Jay took over “The Tonight Show” and Letterman jumped to CBS it worked out better for Letterman. Letterman is a crotchety mean-spirited person whom I find unwatchable but CBS is loyal to Letterman and gives him their full support. If Jay had took the job a CBS instead of Letterman Jay would be treated with the respect he deserves. One of the many things I admire about Jay is the direct opposite of mean spirited Dave, NBC cut “The Tonight Shows” budget and rather that have members of the shows staff loose their jobs Jay too a large pay cut to save their jobs. Jay is a kind and generous man he is the type of person I would love to invite into my house both virtually and in the real world
      I have a feeling that Jay already has a job at a new network but is forbidden to discuss it because of some kind of restriction in his contract.

      If ABC or FOX has not already closed the deal on a new Lenno show they are crazy.

  5. cadavra says:

    And again, that “fair shot” nonsense. Conan premiered on June 1st, and his ratings were already plummeting long before “The Jay Leno Show” debuted on September 14th. You’re simply going to have to accept the reality that Conan wasn’t working at 11:35 and have done with it.

    • Miffy says:

      Thank you. I’m so sick of the false narrative that “The Jay Leno Show” killed Conan’s show. Simply not true. Conan had fumbled away over 40% of Jay’s audience before the Leno show ever started at 10 pm. Happened within three months. Amazingly awful. And before anyone argues that Leno was given more of a chance when he took over from Carson: Leno only initially lost about 10% of Carson’s audience when he took over – not over 40%.

      Conan’s Tonight Show bombed all on its own.

      Ironically, Jay’s lead-ins at 10 pm over the past four years have been lower than the ones Conan got from “The Jay Leno Show”. Yet Leno is number one in his slow.

  6. Arnie Tracey says:

    Journo. 101 – And, if I were David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, or anyone else with a stake in either of their success, I couldn’t be happier.

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