Have you heard about this? Did you read the news? Yeah, NBC reportedly plans to replace Jay Leno as the 11:35 p.m. Tonight Show host (again!) with the hipper host of its 12:35 a.m. show Late Night (again!), a move that’s prompting all kinds of on-air trash talk and speculation (do we have to say it a third time?). Some of the players have changed. Instead of Conan O’Brien as Leno’s would-be successor, as in 2009, it’s the affable Jimmy Fallon; instead of GE-owned NBC calling the shots, it’s Comcast-owned NBC and a new set of network suits. Yet the overall slo-mo PR-nightmare machinations are eerily familiar: The struggling broadcast network seeks to upgrade its No. 1-rated late-night host to a shiny, younger model, and mayhem ensues.
”I don’t understand why they feel they need to move Jay now,” says one veteran late-night staffer, echoing the sentiment of fans and some TV insiders. (Leno is currently averaging 3.5 million viewers, leading all late-night shows, while Fallon regularly brings in 1.7 million an hour later.) We’re just guessing at NBC’s reasons, but they sound pretty smart: Leno’s contract expires in 2014. And at 62, he’s both older and more expensive than Fallon, 38, who could get poached by a rival if NBC doesn’t lock him down. (He also specializes in skits and musical one-offs, a valued commodity in the viral-video age.) Plus, ABC moved Jimmy Kimmel Live! against Leno, and Kimmel, 45, has been performing well, averaging 2.6 million viewers. So he could, in theory, be gaining a foothold with the next generation of young viewers. Economics + fear; in other words, the usual Hollywood-decision math.
Troubled NBC — still doing damage control over at the once-dominant Today show, which continues to lag behind ABC’s Good Morning America, even as host Matt Lauer has become increasingly vocal about his show’s implosion — hasn’t confirmed any of this. The network will say only that it’s renovating a new studio for Fallon in New York City (where The Tonight Show would theoretically film next year under the plan-that-does-not-officially-exist). Meanwhile, Leno is hammering NBC executives in his monologues, yukking about NBC’s record-low prime-time ratings and comparing his bosses to snakes and backstabbers. On March 21 Leno and NBC execs, including embattled entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, went to dinner (a missed programming opportunity — we’d much rather watch that than 1600 Penn), and the next night Leno made two jokes at NBC’s expense. ”It’s just remarkable,” marvels a broadcast-network veteran, ”the amount of instability and chaos that can happen with just one move.”
And there hasn’t even been a move yet! So let’s jump to 2014. What happens…if all this happens? First, NBC will have to replace Fallon at 12:35 a.m. SNL’s Seth Meyers (the safe in-family choice) is heavily rumored as the top pick, though TV insiders also point to Community’s Joel McHale (the less safe, more exciting in-family choice), along with Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh (the totally not safe, not in-family, we’d-watch-it choice) and Stephen Colbert (intriguing, and his contract is up at the end of 2014, though his appeal is largely untested outside his archconservative character from The Colbert Report). Plus, beyond everything that’s not-going-on at NBC there’s also…David Letterman. That’s right, this speculation octopus just grew a whole new tentacle: His contract is also up at the end of 2014! The CBS Late Show host (who’s averaging 3.1 million viewers) may retire, opening up a primo slot that could be filled by the deposed Leno or somebody else. Only we’re not getting any indication from CBS or the Letterman camp that either is ready to change what’s working for them. If not CBS, where would Leno land? It’s difficult to imagine the still-popular host wanting a broadcast-network show and nobody figuring out a way to give it to him. Fox is a possibility; one Fox affiliate chief suggested he’d be open to adding Leno at 11 p.m., though network insiders quickly downplayed the idea of wading into the fray. Says one industry vet: ”I don’t see a [late-night] place for Jay unless he’s going to learn Spanish and go to Univision.” Hey, at least on Univision he’d have a bigger audience than on NBC! Thank you! Our guests tonight include Al Roker and Grumpy Cat…