The late-night hosting carousel is so topsy-turvy and fascinating, it'd make one hell of a reality show on its own.
Late-night World War III is getting underway, with The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter reporting that NBC wants to boot Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show" when his contract runs out next year, and install "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon in his place.
The move comes just a few years after Leno took back the show from Conan O'Brien, whose short-lived stint saw a drop in ratings. And it's happening despite the fact that Leno continues to draw bigger audiences than rival David Letterman and time slot newcomer Jimmy Kimmel.
But sources say that NBC wants to target younger viewers, especially now that Kimmel has moved up to 11:35. It seems too soon to hear rumblings of yet another succession plan, given what an epic fail the last one turned out to be, but writer Joel Keller of Antenna Free TV, a keen observer of the late-night television scene, isn't surprised.
"Just because Leno got the job back doesn't mean that NBC still didn't want to see him leaving at some point," Keller tells us. "And with Kimmel coming in at 11:30 and taking some of the [young viewers] away from Jay, they see the writing on the wall. They think this is the perfect time to get rid of Jay once and for all."
The First Late-Night War
What's happening today is a result of everything that went down in 1992, when Johnny Carson retired as host of "The Tonight Show." Everybody presumed "Late Night" host David Letterman would move up to the earlier time slot, including Letterman himself. Instead, NBC tapped Leno, whose genial, bland form of humor put off many critics. The resulting furor saw Letterman leave to create his own "Late Show" on CBS.
The two hosts, once friendly colleagues, have rarely spoken since. They briefly reunited for a 2010 Super Bowl commercial with Oprah Winfrey, but Letterman continues to make digs about Leno to this day.
The Second Late-Night War
In 2004, Leno made the surprising announcement that in five years, Conan O'Brien (who'd taken over "Late Night" from Letterman), would succeed him as host. As he explained, they wanted to avoid the controversy that took place with Leno's appointment.
But when the appointed deadline loomed, it became clear that Leno -- still the ratings king -- was unhappy about being pushed out. NBC, nervous that he might jump to another network, gave him a daily 10 PM primetime comedy show.
Then O'Brien's "Tonight Show" began to slip in the ratings, while "The Jay Leno Show" bombed with critics and audiences. Desperate to salvage their prize late-night jewel, NBC executives began to consider moving Leno's show to 11:35, and "The Tonight Show" after midnight for the first time in its history.
In protest, O'Brien released an excoriating statement (which went viral) saying he would not host a "Tonight Show" at 12:05, as it would "seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting." Subsequently, NBC paid him off to leave the show, then reinstalled Leno as host. O'Brien, now with a groundswell of support, embarked on a comedy tour, then created his own late-night program on TBS.
The dizzying turn of events only cemented Leno's image as the bad guy. Even Kimmel jumped into the fray when he appeared on one of the final "Jay Leno Show" episodes. Asked about the best prank he'd ever pulled, Kimmel responded, "I told a guy that five years from now I'm gonna give you my show, and then when the five years came, I gave it to him and then I took it back almost instantly."
The Succession Plan 2.0
Now the late-night saga is heating back up again with reports of NBC's newest succession plan. But this time, Keller doesn't think the network will change their minds as they did with O'Brien. Fallon's "Late Night" is a "much more mainstream show" than O'Brien's version, Keller says.
"Jimmy's show translates very well to 11:30 … so I think if the ratings slip a little bit, but they see strong numbers in 18-49, they'll let Fallon be in second place for a little while to Letterman," Keller explains. "They know that once Jay leaves, Letterman is probably going to be a year or two at most from leaving as well. I think there's a bit of a Cold War between the two of them -- one's not going to leave until the other does."
Plus, unlike in 2009, when NBC worried that Leno might move to another network (and take his millions of viewers with him), Keller notes, "There aren't as many places for him to go now … Fox? Well, yeah, Leno could go to Fox, but Fox's affiliates are probably very happy with having 'Seinfeld' and 'Office' reruns, or maybe picking up 'The Arsenio Hall Show' later this year."
While cable is a possibility, "The Conan Show" averages just about a million viewers a night; that would be a huge step down for Leno, who draws an audience three times as large on "Tonight."
Even if Leno is still the late-night king and brings in ratings to the sinking NBC, the network may be especially eager to get rid of him after the host's recent disparaging comments about his bosses. In the last few weeks, he's called the NBC brass "snakes" and quipped that the network was going extinct. He also joked, "'The Biggest Loser' isn't just a TV show anymore; it's our new motto."
The digs reportedly angered NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt so much that he fired off a complaint email to Leno.
"No matter the fact that Jay is No. 1, there seems to be [an] adversarial relationship between Jay and NBC," Keller says, noting that after new owners Comcast took over, Leno's budget and staff were slashed.
The Future of "Tonight"
If all the rumors are true, then Fallon will take over as "Tonight Show" host sometime in the second half of 2014. (Some are even whispering he might replace Leno as soon as next February, when NBC broadcasts the Winter Olympics.)
Not only that, but NBC would also move "The Tonight Show" from its longtime home in Burbank to a new, state-of-the-art studio in New York, where Fallon is based. That would be a return to the show's roots, since it premiered in New York in 1954 with host Steve Allen.
Fallon himself isn't talking much about the possibility. He made a slight joke Wednesday night, but told GQ magazine, "I mean, in the nicest way, who really cares? … It would be great, sure, I guess. I'd love it, but it's not on my mind. I'm in no rush to do anything. I'm kind of a boring character in that book. I'm not in a fight with Jay or Conan, or any of them. I don't have that story."
If Fallon does succeed Leno, then who will succeed Fallon at "Late Night"? Rumors are swirling that NBC is considering shock jock Howard Stern. He's popular among young men, but proved he could tone down his act enough to judge the family-friendly "America's Got Talent."
"On the surface it seems strange, because Howard is almost 60 -- he's only three years younger than Jay," Keller says. "But Howard's audience has always been youthful, and Howard doesn't look 60 or act 60."
But if they do choose Stern, he adds, "They'll get decent ratings, but it's a short-term fix. If you put Howard at 12:30, he may be there five years and that's it."
Among all the swirl around who will host what in late night, women still remain out of the conversation -- something that Keller hopes will be addressed this time around. "I do think that the time is right for the networks to have a female late-night host. Chelsea Handler has proven that there's an audience there," he says.
"There are plenty of women that could do the job very well and it would break that whole mold of late night being … a place for dudes. It would be a good chance to do some out-of-the-box thinking at 12:30."
Though Fallon considers himself a "boring character," the late-night saga is anything but. With ratings down across the board, as Fallon put it: Who really cares?
"It's still a moneymaker for the networks," Keller notes. "The reason why it's such a big deal is because the drama involved is so interesting. [New York Times] writer Bill Carter has written two best-selling books about it … There's still a cultural significance to the shows."