NBC Aims to Bolster ‘Tonight Show’ Producing Team With Veteran Executive

Jimmy Fallon on Monday night added an unconventional twist to his “Tonight Show.” He came out from behind his usual on-screen roost — his desk — to interview actress Juliette Lewis while perched next to her on the seats normally reserved for guests.

“That’s the way things happen here on ‘The Tonight Show,’” Fallon told the actress. “No rules.”

Even so, the NBC late-night mainstay is expected to soon have a new person helping to set, and maybe break, some of “Tonight’s” rhythms.

Negotiations have begun to bring Jim Bell, the veteran NBC News and NBC Sports executive, on board to help run “Tonight,” according to people familiar with the matter.

Bell, who currently produces NBC’s Olympics coverage, is believed to be the leading candidate, one of these people said, and might be able to maintain some ties to sports if he takes the “Tonight’ role. Bell has over the years supervised everything from NBC’s “Today” to its recent World Cup broadcasts. His move to Team Fallon could lend “Tonight” new expertise in live programming and newsy content at a time when late-night hosts have found success by emphasizing current events and the latest swirl of the national headlines.

NBC declined to make executives available for comment.

The departure this week of “Tonight” showrunner Mike DiCenzo, who has been working with Fallon for a decade, created an opening to discuss a new role for Bell. Katie Hockmeyer and Gerard Bradford, two of the producers who currently help run the show are expected to stay with the program.

Adding a new producer to the mix would take place as the ongoing battle for viewers between “Tonight” and its rival, CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” has reached a critical point. Colbert’s program has thrived in the Trump era, with overall viewership growing along with a laser-beam focus on the latest headlines and news.

Fallon’s program had been able to maintain a critical distinction, nabbing more viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 – the kind advertisers covet most. But in the early 2018-2019 TV season, the shows have recently been neck and neck. Season to date as of Oct. 19, “Tonight” outmaneuvered “Late Show” in the category by a tenth of a percentage point, according to Nielsen. Like other late-night programs, “Tonight” has a robust following on YouTube and other social-media venues that is often not calculated in measures of linear TV viewing.

Success in the demographic has long been a benchmark scrutinized by NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. And “Tonight” is considered one of NBC’s flagship properties – something executives scrutinize and compare with the competition.

Fallon’s lead in the advertiser demo means “Tonight” notches more ad dollars than its main rivals. In 2017, “Tonight’ captured $280.9 million in ad revenue, according to ad-spending tracker Kantar, compared with $148.1 million for “Late Show” and $132.4 million for ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Fallon has made many efforts over the years to weave sponsors ranging from General Electric to T-Mobile into the program.

In the first half of 2018, however, “Late Show” is showing new momentum. The show captured $88.3 million, up 17% from $75.1 million in the year-earlier period. Meanwhile, “Tonight” won $114.6 million in the first half of 2018, according to Kantar, down 20% from $144.3 million in first half of 2017.

Bell and Fallon have worked together in the recent past. NBC’s recent broadcast of the Winter Olympics included five-minute versions of “Tonight” sandwiched between primetime broadcasts and late-night coverage. “We pitched it to Jim Bell,” Hockmeyer told Variety earlier this year, “and he was down with it.”

The move to enlist Bell comes after two new executives rose to the top of NBC Entertainment. Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks were named co-chairs of NBC Entertainment last month. Cheeks had previously been head of late-night programming at NBC while Telegdy had oversight of many of NBC’s best-known unscripted programs.

NBC appears to have studied the CBS playbook. In the spring of 2016, after Colbert’s program had gotten off to a rocky start, CBS named Chris Licht, a TV-news veteran who helped start both MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and CBS News’ “CBS This Morning” as the “Late Show” showrunner. Since that time, Colbert’s program has featured often edgy humor based on the latest Trump headlines, and sought guests in the middle of the news storm including Anthony Scaramucci, former FBI director James Comey and any number of TV anchors including CNN’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

But Fallon isn’t likely to get much more political. Adding a producer with Bell’s experience to the team would likely free others up to focus more on creative elements of the show.

Under Fallon, “Tonight”has been known as a place where the host engages his celebrity guests in games and challenges, but in recent months, his crew has taken bigger swings. Fallon visited a Minnesota family for dinner, for example, and streamed the encounter via Facebook. He recently broadcast from Central Park. He has also packed more content into various segments. The first two segments of Monday’s broadcast, for instance, contained not only a monologue but a bit with a video researcher for the show using his nose to play a musical instrument and a musical-impressions challenge with Melissa Villasenor of “Saturday Night Live.”

Putting Bell at “Tonight” might also solve the question of whether Fallon needs a creative partner at the lead of his show, or someone more skilled in solving even the knottiest logistics. When Fallon was set to move to succeed Jay Leno at “Tonight,” his executive producer from “Late Night,” Amy Ozols, was slated to move with him to his new roost. Instead, NBC opted for Josh Lieb, a veteran of “The Daily Show” who had more overall production experience (Ozols has since rejoined Fallon, and is now head writer at “Tonight”). When Lieb left “Tonight” in 2016, the trio of Hockmeyer, Bradford and DiCenzo took over.

The addition of Bell would undoubtedly bring some new elements to “Tonight.” The executive, who has been entrusted with some of NBC’s top franchises, appears to be in line to take on one more.

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