NBC Rewrites History To Promote Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight’ Debut

Bill Maher issues defense of Jay
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In surprising move, Peacock acknowledges short-lived Conan O'Brien period, but avoids mention of Leno's two runs behind desk

NBC wants Jimmy Fallon to succeed so badly when he takes over its venerable “Tonight Show” in February that it is attempting to bend the rules of time.

In a promo unveiled Saturday evening, the Peacock depicts Fallon as the latest in the decades-old program’s line of memorable hosts. A succession of graphics lists the famous names: Steve Allen. Jack Paar. Johnny Carson. Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno.

The problem? Leno hosted the show before O’Brien did. Indeed, the veteran has enjoyed two separate “Tonight” runs, from 1992 to 2009, as Johnny Carson’s successor, and again starting in 2010, after a General Electric-controlled NBCUniversal attempted to move Conan O’Brien into the “Tonight” chair while keeping Leno affiliated with the network by placing him to a 10 p.m. timeslot five days a week. The ill-fated effort sparked outcry from NBC affiliates who thought low ratings for Leno’s 10 p.m. roost were wiping away viewership for late local news, a large contributor to stations’ ad revenue. As a result, Leno returned to “Tonight” and O’Brien left the network altogether.

To be sure, the new promo shows Leno as heir to Carson’s seat, even as it gives a brief spotlight to O’Brien (a signal, perhaps, that NBC’s current owner, Comcast, takes a dim view of the debacle and would like nothing better than to sweep it  under the rug). Yet the video also makes  things seem as if O’Brien held sway well before Leno came on the scene.  And the manner in which various clips are shown suggests Leno will have enjoyed an uninterrupted run before he hands Fallon the baton.

The last time NBC attempted to manage a “Tonight” transition from a long-running host to a new one, it used different tactics. When O’Brien prepared to take the reins from Leno in 2009, NBC launched a marketing effort that portrayed the lanky red-headed host as a box of new cereal or a tube of an unheard-of toothpaste.

In one promo, actor Nathan Lane told potential “Tonight” watchers: “Conan: Just look for the big red hair.” In a second,  Martha Stewart uttered, “Oh, goodness, Conan is like the perfect treat.” At the end of each spot, viewers were asked, “Have you tried Conan O’Brien?”

NBC is expected to use its coming broadcast of the Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia, to draw attention to the launch of Fallon on “Tonight,” slated for Feb. 17, 2014. Fallon is expected to appear at a press event Tuesday during which NBCUniversal executives will discuss their plans for covering the event.

Fallon’s success is critical for the network, which continues to dominate the latenight time slot even as its once-unshakable holds on primetime and early-morning have loosened. Fallon takes the “Tonight” chair as latenight becomes ever more fragmented, thanks to a phalanx of new hosts and shows that have appeared on cable. Ad buyers expect Fallon to do well on “Tonight,” but predict ratings will continue to erode as the wide array of shows available around midnight splinter viewership.

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  1. Erin Newell says:

    Don’t for a moment compare the gifted Jimmy Fallon with Conan O’Brian.

    Jimmy will have great success as the new host of The Tonight Show! I for one can’t wait for Feb 17th!

  2. Donna Sullivan says:

    The change in host to Jimmy from Leno will bring me back to the Tonight Show. Very excited to see if he can bring this back to the class act it was once known for to me! Best wishes to the whole cast and crew as it’s moved to NYC!

  3. The goof-balls of Comcast cant even provide good service with its exfinity cable service. I use exfinity for internet and phone service. EVERY time I went to pay my bills the line was out the door and down the block with users bringing back equipment and switching to satellite. CoNcasts latest will surely come around and bite them in the ass. Leno’s draw is from the baby boomers and ones that grew up watching Parr and Carson. Fallon is ( I’m sure) a nice kid. Operative word KID. That being said be prepared to watch the show and its downward spiral. Musical guests include rappers and no names save an occasional super star. So much of Leno’s format has been copied by other late night hosts. CoNcast should have left well enough alone…IF IT AIN’T BROKE….DON’T FIX IT!!! Chalk up yet another brain fart for CoNcast.

    P.S. Oh Jay if you read this, if CoNcast comes back asking around tell them yes and DEMAND an iron clad contract. And a time for retirement at least 6 weeks after your inspecting the ground beneath Forest Lawn! And Jay thank you for many enjoyable nights.

    • Erin Newell says:

      David, you are wrong on so many levels. Jimmy appeals to all age groups and will have great success. Prepare to eat your words because you are way off base with your criticism of Mr. Fallon.

  4. If Leno goes to Fox and airs just an 1/2 hour before the tonight show it will be disastrous for NBC. What the network fails to understand is that older adults watch the Tonight Show and Letterman. The younger adults like to stay up later that’s why Fallon and Kimmel do so well. Just don’t understand why NBC wanted to mess with a show that is number 1. Guess a bunch of idiots with nothing better to do decide things on a whim. Look at the disaster Conan was.

  5. Erin Newell says:

    To the person who said Jimmy Fallon stinks…you will soon be eating your words. He will be very successful and already has a huge fan base. Hope you are hungry…

  6. kadie says:

    well for what it is worth…. NBC is losing at least 1 viewer… I was slow to become a regulat Leno viewer but he grew on me.. where Fallon.. YUCK!!! No wonder NBC is the least watched of al the networks.. Leno – yes!! Fallon…. stinks!!!!

  7. Don says:

    The transition will be a disaster, and NBC will wish they had Leno back. This time Leno might not oblige them and go to another station.

  8. Daanon says:

    Almost all of the recent comments are of the ilk that Fallon will either do a great job, that he won’t, or that Leno shouldn’t be leaving. Don’t suppose anyone has a comment on the subject of the actual article and if NBC rewrote history and if you do, can you say more than, “much ado about nothing?”

  9. After watching Jimmy tonight (1/9/14) while he and an audience member both did a skit that was GREAT. I went to Brian Steinberg’s Variety posting and thought how much fun it would be to hear Jimmy read this whole article in the same type of venue that he and the audience member did. It is a bit long, but I am sure Jimmy could shorten it. The article explains all of the complicated info on past hosts. Now, just think about it. When Jimmy takes over, he could read it fast (like he did tonight) just to explain the hosting situations from the past and how he finally got to be the host.

    I think Jimmy is wonderful. So very talented. I stay up late at night just to watch the show.
    Please let me know if he agrees to do this. I would love to tape it so I could watch it over and over again.

    • Yeah and are you like 38, no brains just auto reflex because you gestation mates brought you up in that fashion.

      • Erin Newell says:

        I am the older generation at 68 and love Jimmy Fallon. Jay was good in his earlier days but no longer holds The Tonight Show magic wand. I am thrilled that Jimmy is the new host and can’t wait for him to debut as the new host of The Tonight Show!!!

  10. Barbara says:

    The Tonight Show will NOT be the same without Jay Lena. I’ve watched Fallon’s show
    and he’s just okay. This move is very disappointing and most likely won’t watch anymore.

    • I hope you mean (Jay Leno) as (Jay Lena is a Quarter horse that last raced in 1987 & never appeared on a TV Program other then the Evening News).

    • Erin Newell says:

      It’s Jay Leno that’s leaving and it’s time for him to go. Jimmy Fallon will be great as the new host, he can do almost anything. So entertaining!!! Give him a chance, you’ll be glad you did. I’m 68 and ready for a younger, multi-talented host. Bring it Jimmy!!!

    • peterblood71 says:

      Yes more people are enamored of the kind of bland homey innocuous comedy Leno now dispenses than something of a more hipper nature like Fallon or O’Brien. Leno used to be quite cutting edge and now that blade has turned mighty dull. It is time for a younger host. I’m saying that and I’m 60 years old.

      • Yeah Conan was soooo enamoring so much so that he was….CANCELED…..DUH!!!!!

      • peterblood71 says:

        Actually to be fair O’Brien wasn’t given a chance. When Jimmy Fallon takes over it’s all but assured the numbers will drop too. Nature of the new host beast. They dropped when Leno took over. Conan’s lead-in was a failed Jay Leno 10pm show which dropped the numbers for newscasts for all the NBC affiliates, then dropping numbers for Conan. It would have taken time to build up Conan’s numbers with a proper lead-in so Leno screwed him in a couple of ways. At the same time Conan may not be what middle America wants to see at 11:30pm whereas 12:30pm is perfectly fine. The jury is out on Fallon who I like too. It’s Leno I can no longer stand being a very ungracious small minded host. He used to be great and really funny in the old days, sadly not now. Every dog has his day, and then not.

      • 2late2matter says:

        Can’t necessarily buy into that, and I am 63 y.o.

        Recall Johnny Carson having ‘stale’ material for a long time that never got that old where it forced a network change, as his presentation was what made it great. Leno has walked far in Carson’s shoes and the timeless stuff never really gets old with a new generation of guest faces. Then too, Ed McMahon played Johnny’s foil perfectly.

        Watched (and discounted) Conan fairly quickly, but believe Fallon will bring his schtick to NBC with a rabid viewer demographic that will initially increase ratings. I predict that eventually, something – on cable or another network – will wean some viewers from Fallon’s showcase, but he will stand toe-to-toe with the Letterman’s and the Kimmel’s in that late night TV slot. We’ll see soon enough.

      • peterblood71 says:

        Well I am 61 and like Conan and Fallon and remember seeing a Jay Leno in concert who was much more cutting edge a very long time ago. Granted one has to tone down for TV but I don’t dig Jay at all on TV. Conan got a raw deal on the Tonight Show but he may have not been the best choice for those who want the more banal comedy associated with that hour. In that respect maybe Fallon will do better. Carson was the late night King and managed to titillate and walk the tightrope better than Leno IMHO. He also did not overstay his welcome as Leno obnoxiously has.

  11. cadavra says:

    Back when Variety truly was “The Bible of Show Business,” a piece like this would have been spiked before it ever got to the copy editor. You no longer have to worry about pages to fill, so why even waste time with such nonsense?

  12. Speaking of baton-passing debacles, Leno himself was nearly one. Or does nobody at all remember the Leno-Letterman slugfest that went down, for Johnny’s seat? It’s comical, really, how much drama there is over this position. Hosting the Tonight show is like becoming the narrator of Unsolved Mysteries after a long and illustrious career as a well-liked and well-known movie and TV actor. It’s comedy’s version of semi-retirement.

  13. Eileen says:

    As has been previously stated, this article is much ado about nothing. What you should be focusing on is the amazingly talented Jimmy Fallon and his soon to be debut on The Tonight Show. He is a breath of fresh air and a welcome change from Leno. I am 65, and am thrilled that NBC made this decision! Best, Jimmy!

  14. barbara sainsbury says:

    Looking forward to Jimmy Fallon taking over Tonight spot. Good luck to a funny and likeable host who is better than most!

  15. A very good friend of mine in Los Angeles (RIP Now) negotiated record setting contracts with studios and networks. As a result he left the head of CBS and spearheaded the Desilu Studios. The Networks have had decades of screwing talent so once in a while it bites them in the ass and this is one of those cases. A sad reality but NBC has been caught in a free fall of ratings and revenue. But it is a business still and that is the bottom line. In marketing and producing music artists, I can not afford to throw money at an artist I do not believe in. It should be the same mind set even if you have money to burn. I am also leading a development of a new phone and online gaming system ap that will make huge strides for indie musicians and comedians. If I did not see huge potential I would pull the plug in a heartbeat. Strategically though they have lowered the bar from finding a new “Carson” and they will never find another close to him or Leno in my opinion. I do think that Fallon is a better fit than Conan and will be more accepted now.

  16. Sandy Carmena says:

    I would love to work on the show- I never met a stranger and love to talk to them- hand me a mike and send me on my way- LOL!

    – Loved Jimmy Fallons special tonight.

    Thanks I LMAO.

  17. Daanon says:

    Slow news day I guess. I agree this may be one of the most pointless articles ever. I feel sorry for all the industry people who actually pay for Variety. The debate on whether the promo would have been different pre-Comcast is pointless, it’s just conjecture.For all you know they could have gone to Jay and said, Hey Jay, we’re not going to list your name twice, do you want to be before or after Conan?” There’s nothing that suggests that anyone even asked NBC or Leno about it. Not that they wouldn’t just give a carefully crafted spin response, but still the effort should have been made. For all you know they might have flipped a coin as whether to list Leno before or after Conan. Maybe they had a focus group and the decision was made based on viewer feedback from the focus group.

    Is it trolling? Not sure. Though the article doesn’t really suggest how it should have been handled. Seriously, what should they have done differently? Listed Leno twice? That would be silly. Not listed Conan at all, now that really would be rewriting history. I never would have even clicked on the article from Imdb if the headline read, “NBC makes minor flub in Fallon Tonight Show promo,” but the sensationalist headline about NBC rewriting history caught my attention. I was expecting to see that they had done some Forest Gump style digital editing showing Carson turning the show over to Conan. I feel more mislead by the article than I do the promo itself. I’m guessing there would have been an equally idiotic article had they listed Leno before Conan instead of after. Trolling or not, this is just bad sensationalist yellow journalism. The writer should be demoted to copy editing or worse. I read entertainment news because it’s a nice break from reading articles about the sad state of education in America, Because I can read entertainment news without getting pissed off, thanks for ruining that for me. I normally wouldn’t even comment on something like this, but I feel lied to and mislead.

  18. JP says:

    This is a terrible article. They show Conan. End of story. If they had left him out I could understand this. Whether or not they put Leno handing over the show to Conan is not important. The promo is for Fallon, highlighting him and a brief history of the show. Who would ever produce a promo that focuses on a bad transition for the show? There is no mention of the transition to Carson, yet you don’t mention that. Stop trying to make something out of nothing. You may disagree that this is trolling but it is really is. You are trying to bring up the bad transition cause it was good for page views. You are pointing out a small and (at this point) insignificant detail and trying to make it an issue.

  19. Don says:

    Holy cow. You’d think they didn’t include CoCo at all by the way this is written. They did – and certainly didn’t have to. It’s pretty gracious if you ask me.

  20. patrikvodak says:

    WHO CARES? Don’t make such a big deal from it. Jimmy will be great and Conan was in the promo, so I think everything is alright.

  21. Jake says:

    I’m not why this is an issue, if they wanted to rewrite history they wouldn’t have included Conan. Anyways, as much as I like Fallon, I think it once again is a huge mistake to get rid of Leno. I’ve never seen a network want to get rid of the number one host in demos and audience. Hope Leno goes to fox.

    • 2late2matter says:


      I fully expect Leno to lovingly wash his stable of antique cars, eat leisure breakfasts (late), enjoy his own time with Vegas and Laughlin and Atlantic City comedy shows – where his demographic audience can say they saw him while he was alive (like Elvis).

      Leno will burn no bridges and probably be welcomed back on Fallon’s shows to standing ovations. Nobody need worry about Jay Leno. He will do fine in early retirement.

  22. colig says:

    never liked leno or for that matter most of the other ass kissing late night guys who all do the same thing for the most part.i like fallon because i’m loyal to snl and i hope he can make the tonite show watchable again.i also like craig ferguson because,well he’s different to be sure.i also like the fact that the tonite show is coming back to new york and 30 rock. good luck jimmy.

  23. Jim says:

    Much ado about absolutely nothing…Should the promo say Jay Leno then Conan then Jay Leno again? Should it show a picture of Leno then Conan and Leno just to be technically correct?

    Good grief…who cares?

  24. ben says:

    leno finally going ya

  25. Once again, NBC has gotten it wrong. Statistics show the television viewing audience is skewering older, meaning Jay Leno, not Jimmy Fallon, should remain king of the network’s nighttime line-up. But NBC execs will only get the message when they see how much traffic Dave Letterman picks up – unless, of course, Jay finds a home elsewhere on the dial.

  26. Claire says:

    I’m confused by your claim that the clip is deliberately misrepresenting history in order to suggest O’Brien came before Leno.

    In the initial appearances of both of them at seconds 11 and 12, Leno is shown first, then O’Brien. That, and a listing of O’Brien’s name in the roster of hosts, are the only two times he is referenced in the promo clip.

    True, Leno’s name is not listed twice–i.e. not Leno-O’Brien-Leno. Instead they appear to be focusing on the hand-over from Leno to Fallon–something that is spot-lighted in the clip by an inclusion of Leno introducing Fallon as the new host. But this in no way appears to be a problematic attempt to deceive or bend time or rewrite history; rather, it comes across as a simple recognition of the five individuals who have previously hosted the show. Suggesting it is a nefarious move on the part of NBC, or something bigger than it is, comes across as Variety trolling for article clicks by resurrecting old controversies in the hopes that it will draw traffic to your site.

    Which, in my case, it did, of course. I clicked on the article and, after reading it, watched the clip, expecting to see something of substance; after watching, I just felt confused about the point of the article which comes across as making a huge mountain out of the slightest of molehills.

    But I did click on both the article and the promo, so both your objectives and NBC’s, presumable, were achieved. So, congratulations on the successful trolling, I guess. :)

    • Miffy says:

      Well put, Claire. In one of the other montages, Leno comes before Conan. So they evened it out. And it would be much more awkward to show Leno twice.

      Much ado about nothing. And props to NBC for acknowledging Conan.

    • Brian Steinberg says:

      Claire, I disagree that this is a matter of trolling. The simple fact is that the promo deliberately alters the order of the hosts to keep viewers’ thoughts about the last (very troubled) “Tonight” transition to a minimum. The piece also takes care to point out the fact that the promo makes sure to suggest that Leno is Carson’s heir and is handing the reins to Fallon. And while it’s nice of NBC to acknowledge Conan – one suspects this would not have taken placed under the pre-Comcast regime – it’s somewhat disingenuous to nod to O’Brien while not placing his term on the show in its accurate context

      • Phil says:

        It’s not inaccurate. It’s a list of all the hosts. When you see a list of all the POTUS’s names, Grover Cleveland is not named twice.

      • seboise says:

        Claire is right. This is epic epic trolling. And silly.

      • Phil says:

        Leno was Carson’s successor, and Leno is the one “handing the reins” over to Fallon. The ad acknowledges Conan as one of the previous hosts of the show. There’s nothing deceptive or disingenuous in the spot. It’s a TV commercial, not an essay on the history of late night television. I won’t call you a troll, but I do think you are just looking for controversy where it does not exist.

      • Brian Steinberg says:

        Phil, I think pointing out inaccuracy is still worthwhile

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