Why NBC Should Be Planning Jay Leno's Exit (Analysis)

Tim Goodman
NBCU Debates Timing of Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show Debut

When Kim Masters of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that "two high-level industry sources" had told her that NBC was planning its exit strategy for Jay Leno -- and that his arguably forced departure in favor of Jimmy Fallon was coming as soon as 2014 -- NBC denied the story absolutely.

Of course it would. It had to. But the question is, if NBC is not planning on Leno's departure, why not?

That's a network in seemingly perpetual turnaround, and despite a short-lived rise to the top, it still has plenty of work to do. In fact, you could make the argument that whatever patchwork helped pull it out of the cellar has rotted away and needs to be completely reworked.

If that's the case, securing the future of late-night should be a big part of the network's strategy, although primetime still needs the most immediate attention.

Two things stood out to me in Masters' story. First, the specificity of the sources noting that NBC planned to move Fallon "from his Late Night spot into the coveted 11:35 p.m. time slot with a soft launch during the summer of 2014 before a formal fall kickoff." Secondly, one of the sources declared that such a move was prompted by the success ABC has had moving Jimmy Kimmel to 11:35 p.m., where his surprising performance in the demo has turned a lot of heads and raised a lot of eyebrows. "The more time Jimmy Kimmel is in that slot, the more the young audience goes that way, the harder it is for (Fallon) to keep the audience."

That's a sound evaluation -- and a dire one. Few people thought Kimmel had much chance at 11:35 p.m., but his strong showing -- arguably the best programming move in some time -- certainly cements what has been obvious for ages: Kimmel is the future of late-night. And that future has arrived.

The late-night host wars have been going on seemingly forever because Leno and David Letterman have been so inextricably tied together since Johnny Carson's retirement. Leno has certainly won the ratings battle and delivered to the network (the one that already tried to get rid of him once) what they were paying him to produce. But the hard truth of the cyclical nature of late-night is that Leno's star is fading. He'll keep his loyal audience, but the demo is where the ad dollars are, and there's nothing like the allure of the next big thing, which is Kimmel, who's been riding the zeitgeist long before his time-slot promotion. His success in that slot will not only hasten the end for Leno but likely Letterman as well -- as painful as that is to say. At least NBC has Fallon to plug into Leno's slot. CBS has no real successor for Letterman but is no doubt actively discussing younger possibilities. 

Or at least should be. And despite Craig Ferguson's talent and charm, he's not the answer.

Letterman can probably write his own exit strategy and CBS will go along with it -- there's no heir apparent that would speed or complicate that process were Letterman to be reluctant to leave. Leno, who has lost the public relations battle for years now, may not be able to make another stand, particularly if these whispers turn out to be as informed as they seem.

But even if NBC is moving stealthily on this issue, that doesn't mean the plan they have will work. Fallon tries very hard and has his own notable style, but he hasn't been laying the foundation for crossover -- or at least broader -- appeal that Kimmel has. Fallon's strength is on the music side (and even the digital side), but those are hardly trademarks of the 11:35 p.m. slot, where the interview is still king. Fallon still needs work in that area.

So here we are again with NBC having no sure thing. Not in primetime (though the network shares those woes with pretty much everyone this season), nor in late-night. NBC has been falling apart for so long now that it has entered tear-down territory. It really needs to consider everything -- up to a full revolution in approach to being a Big Four network and what that might mean -- and discount no bold ideas. That includes the second attempted ousting of Leno in recent history.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine