Despite earlier denials, it’s clear that NBC is poised to begin hammering out a succession plan for “Late Night” host Fallon to move up to “The Tonight Show” throne, possibly as soon as 2014. Insiders stressed that there is no formal deal in place for Fallon. But the chatter about host shuffle and the return of “Tonight Show” to Gotham — amplified by a decisive report posted Wednesday by the New York Times — will undoubtedly force the network’s hand in addressing the contracts of both hosts. That puts NBC in the awkward position of once again preparing for the exit of the host who remains No. 1 in the competitive latenight timeslot, despite little help from NBC’s primetime sked. Leno’s current contract is up in September 2014. The transition focus talk comes barely four years after NBC briefly replaced Leno with Conan O’Brien, only to reverse course abruptly when “Tonight Show” ratings took a dive.
Sources close to Leno brushed off the talk of Fallon moving up as premature. The media frenzy on Wednesday was sparked by reports of a planned upgrade and expansion of Fallon’s studio at 30 Rock. NBC insiders noted it’s no secret that many areas in the Peacock’s headquarters are undergoing a major refurbishment. But the speculation that the work on the “Late Night” studio was a first step a “Tonight Show” transition was too hot of a topic for the media rumor mill to ignore. “It’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophesy,” marveled one exec at a rival network, noting that the storm of rumors would force NBC to act sooner rather than later, even though the network has plenty of other problems to tackle at the moment.
There’s also another school of thought that Leno’s camp was surreptitously spreading the rumor to push NBC to extend him beyond 2014. Leno has taken pointed jabs at NBC’s weak ratings perf in recent days in his “Tonight Show” monologue, which only intensified speculation about behind-the-scenes plans for NBC’s latenight lineup.
NBC clearly wants to keep Fallon in the fold. But lost in the reportage on the intrigue — irresistible because of the legacy of the O’Brien debacle that cost NBC an estimated $45 million — is the fact that “Tonight Show” is not the cash cow it once was for the Peacock — not by a long shot, according to insiders. The show had its budget trimmed considerably two years ago when Leno signed his last deal.
For sure, Leno’s tenure at “Tonight Show” has been highly scrutized ever since he took the helm from Johnny Carson in 1992 — after a very public runoff process with David Letterman, then “Late Night” host who was Carson’s hand-picked choice.
Letterman, meanwhile, is under contract to CBS through 2014.
ABC’s move to put Jimmy Kimmel’s show on a time slot par with Leno and Letterman has stirred talk of a generational shift in latenight, and further fueled the focus on NBC’s plan for Fallon. In spite of Kimmel’s youthful advantage over latenight’s elder statesman, “Tonight Show” remains No. 1 in 18-49 and Letterman is highly competitive with Kimmel.
Beyond the Leno-Fallon tango, there’ll be more rumors to come about potential “Late Night” successors. But the prospect of “Tonight Show” returning to a 90-minute format, as it once was under Carson, could change the nature of its companion show.