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

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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