The Tonight Show transition from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon was years in the making, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt told reporters gathered at the Television Critics press tour Saturday. But ultimately, the timing of the hand-off came down to the once-every-four-years promotional platform of the Winter Olympics.
"The big strategic discussions, we've been having those discussions since I arrived here" in early 2011, admitted Greenblatt. "We knew that we had a platform in the Olympics in the season that we weren't going to have again for four years. We wanted to make the transition when the time period was really strong to give Jimmy Fallon the best chance of succeeding."
But Greenblatt stressed that his desire is to keep Leno – who briefly exited Tonight in 2010 to make room for Conan O'Brien – in the NBC fold. He would not offer specifics, but noted that he's had discussions with Leno and would like to see him in a Bob Hope role as a kind of comedian emeritus.
"Nothing would make us happier than to have him – a la Bob Hope – stay on the network," he added. "And he's got a lot of ideas."
And he asserted that this time around, there's no buyer's remorse. "Jay has done an incredible job for more than two decades," said Greenblatt. "He's actually one of the nicest people you will ever meet. And he's been a great team players in all of these transitional discussions."
NBC also next season will whether a significant cast exodus on signature late-night franchise Saturday Night Live. Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg have already left; Samberg is headlining the upcoming Fox comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Seth Meyers is leaving to succeed Fallon on Late Night. Jason Sudeikis announced his departure last week following closely on the heels of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. When the 39th season of SNL opens this fall, Kenan Thompson will be the show's veteran performer.
But Greenblatt expressed confidence in creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels' ability to stock the show with the comedy stars of tomorrow.
"There's nobody better at combing this country and finding the next generation of actors than Lorne," said Greenblatt. "We're confident that he's going to do that again for us. SNL goes through these upheavals every year to some degree and every few years to a larger degree. Lorne's been doing this for 38 years now. Would we have preferred to keep Jason and Bill and Kirsten and Fred for more time? Absolutely. But it is what it is."