NBC Banks on Jimmy Fallon’s Flair for Main St. Hijinks

Network accelerates 'Tonight Show' transition with Leno in bid to maintain latenight dominance

As soon as he found his footing on “Late Night,” Jimmy Fallon’s promotion to the “The Tonight Show” desk was taken as a given within NBC. The announcement of the Jay Leno-Fallon handoff, set for February following NBC’s coverage of the winter Olympics, was hastened by ABC’s recent move of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to the 11:35 p.m. slot — but not by much, according to Peacock insiders.

(From the pages of the April 9 issue of Variety.)

Fallon was the natural choice to succeed Leno, and not just because of his apprenticeship in the 12:35 a.m. hour. NBCUniversal brass see him as the host with the strongest potential to have the mainstream appeal that has kept Leno No. 1 in latenight for more than 20 years.

The celeb impersonations, skits and song parodies that have become Fallon’s energetic trademark, honed during his six years on “Saturday Night Live,” are hardly toohip-for-the-room material. But by virtue of his age, 38, he’ll bring a generational shift in tone and content to “Tonight Show.”

Fallon has gained street cred with latenight’s target demo through his embrace of social media and knack for delivering viral videos that keep auds chattering. “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” (pictured above), featuring Fallon’s fancy footwork with Michelle Obama, has logged nearly 15.5 million views on YouTube alone since it was uploaded Feb. 22:

“He’s just magic in front of an audience,” said Lorne Michaels, who ushered Fallon into the “Late Night” host slot in 2009 and will continue as his exec producer when “Tonight” relocates to Gotham next year.

“Part of the appeal of those pieces is that they go viral and reach a whole other audience,” Michaels said. “Jimmy tweets during the taping. He’s so strongly connected to his audience and so much of the audience now watches it online.”

NBC took a beating in the public eye during the past few weeks as rumors of the “Tonight” transition spread, with many perplexed at why the Peacock was so eager to shake up a show that has long been No. 1 in its timeslot.

But NBC brass had already determined that the two-year pact Leno reached with the network in 2012 would be his last on the show. The goal was to finesse the installation of Fallon while “Tonight” was still on top.

As reports of the Fallon rumors spread, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke was determined to avoid, as much as possible, a replay of the 2009 debacle with Conan O’Brien, whose eight-month tenure at “Tonight” was complicated by the network’s decision to install Leno in a 10 p.m. nightly show.

Burke flew to Los Angeles on March 24 to huddle with Leno — the first time the two had met since Burke took over NBCU in late 2010 — and discuss scenarios that allow him a graceful exit from the desk he has manned since succeeding Johnny Carson in 1992. Leno was suitably impressed by the outreach from the Peacock’s big boss.

After the formal Fallon announcement was made April 3, everyone at NBC, from Burke on down, fell all over themselves praising Leno’s “graciousness” in the succession process.

As the dust settles, hopes at NBC are high that Fallon will be a demo-friendly worthy successor, and that Leno’s benevolence to the institution he’s about to hand over will keep him from mounting a rival latenight program any time soon.

Popular on Variety

More Biz

  • Beverly Hills Realtor Accused of Stealing

    Beverly Hills Realtor Accused of Stealing From Usher, Adam Lambert

    A Beverly Hills real estate agent has been arrested on charges of stealing from the homes of celebrities, including Usher, Adam Lambert and “Real Housewives” star Dorit Kemsley. Jason Emil Yaselli, 32, is accused of encouraging an accomplice, Benjamin Ackerman, to enter homes during open houses in order to steal from them. Ackerman allegedly sold [...]

  • Pod Save America Hosts on Trump

    'Pod Save America' Hosts on Trump, the Democratic Primary and What's Wrong With Cable News

    Like many Democrats, Tanya Somanader was blindsided by the 2016 presidential election. A veteran of the Obama White House and a former speechwriter and digital specialist for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Somanader was gearing up for a Hillary Clinton administration. Instead, she had to grapple with the reality of a Donald Trump presidency. “A lot [...]

  • Ann Sarnoff Warner Bros

    Ann Sarnoff Formally Takes Reins of Warner Bros. as CEO

    The Ann Sarnoff era at Warner Bros. has begun. Sarnoff formally took the reins as Warner Bros. chair-CEO on Thursday, two months after she was appointed to the post. Sarnoff told employees in a memo that she has been impressed by the company’s track record during the past year amid a period of upheaval for [...]

  • Former movie producer Harvey Weinstein (L)

    Harvey Weinstein to Be Arraigned on New Indictment

    Harvey Weinstein is set to appear in court on Monday for an arraignment on a new indictment, the Manhattan D.A.’s office said Thursday. Prosecutors announced last week that they would seek a fresh indictment, which would allow actress Annabella Sciorra to testify at Weinstein’s trial. The move came after Justice James Burke ruled on Aug. [...]

  • AI Technology David Beckham

    How AI Tech Is Changing Dubbing, Making Stars Like David Beckham Multilingual

    David Beckham does not speak Arabic, Hindi or Mandarin. But when the soccer legend starred in a PSA for malaria awareness this spring, he effortlessly switched among these and six other languages, thanks to cutting-edge technology that could soon change how Hollywood localizes its movies and TV shows. The PSA in question was produced with technology [...]

  • Eminem Publisher Sues Spotify, Claiming Copyright

    Eminem Publisher Sues Spotify, Claiming Massive Copyright Infringement

    Eight Mile Style, a publishing company that holds administration rights to Eminem’s early catalog, filed a major copyright infringement lawsuit against Spotify late Thursday, claiming that the streaming giant has no license to host about 250 of Eminem’s songs, while also taking aim at the Music Modernization Act, the federal law enacted last year to [...]

  • iQIYI headquarters building in Beijing

    China’s iQIYI in Talks for Indonesia Expansion

    Chinese streaming firm iQIYI is in negotiations to expand further into Southeast Asia through a venture with Indonesia’s Media Nusantara Citra. iQIYI announced its first step outside Chinese-majority territories in June, when it revealed a linkup in Malaysia with pay-TV leader Astro. It also operates in Taiwan. In April, the company said that it planned [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content