For decades, the host of The Tonight Show has been crowned NBC’s late-night king. But through the years, one figure has been looming larger than any host or executive in NBC’s late night, producer Lorne Michaels, and the current turmoil over the Tonight Show transition is poised to further cement his enormous clout. Known as a fixer, Michaels launched and runs NBC’s Saturday Night Live, whose recent episode hosted by Justin Timberlake stands as NBC’s highest-rated entertainment series telecast of 2013 in adults 18-49. Lorne was removed in the early 1980s only to be brought back several years later after SNL‘s fortunes had begun to fade, and he quickly brought the sketch show back to top form. In 1993, Michaels was brought to rescue the Late Night franchise, in shambles after David Letterman’s abrupt departure. He reached to his SNL bench and plucked out a writer, Conan O’Brien, as new host of Late Night. And in 2008, he orchestrated the anointment of another of his SNL pupils, Jimmy Fallon, as O’Brien’s successor when he moved to The Tonight Show. While Michaels was reportedly not involved in O’Brien’s brief stint at The Tonight Show, he appears very hands-on in the pending changeover between Jay Leno and Fallon and will likely continue to have a presence when Fallon becomes Tonight Show host, especially with the plan to keep Fallon in New York and move The Tonight Show franchise there. That means that, unless Late Night relocates to Los Angeles, NBC could conceivably have all three of its marquee late night shows, The Tonight Show, Late Night and SNL, under the same roof and under the watchful eye of Michaels. (A move of Late Night to LA would make it difficult for Michaels to be in control and exercise his duties as executive producer, which could affect the show. For instance, of the two recent primetime series Michaels produced, 30 Rock, which was produced in New York, had a long and successful run; Up All Night, which filmed in Los Angeles, quickly fell apart.) As for Fallon’s successor on Late Night, speculation is intensifying that Michaels would once again take a page out of his own playbook and turn to SNL for a new recruitment with Weekend Update host Seth Meyers. With no obvious outside candidates and limited time to groom someone for the job, Meyers, who has a ton of experience having hosted Weekend Update since 2006, appears the logical choice though he doesn’t have the boy next door appeal Fallon has.
Weekend Update has become arguably the biggest star-making machine on television for those handpicked by Michaels to sit behind the anchor desk. Since 2000, it has produced one late-night talk show host (Fallon), one rumored to join him (Meyers) and two TV series and film stars, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Among the four of them, they have hosted the Emmys (Fallon), the Golden Globes (Fey & Poehler) and the White House Correspondents Dinner (Meyers). So forget about The Tonight Show and Late Night. The biggest question is who would succeed Meyers on Weekend Update.