WASHINGTON – For the second time in about four years, Jay Leno is stepping down from NBC’s iconic late-night franchise “The Tonight Show.” This time, he’ll exit in spring 2014 to make way for “Late Night” star Jimmy Fallon.
Fallon will take over sometime after that, the network announced Wednesday, confirming the industry’s worst-kept secret in recent history. NBC Chief Executive Steve Burke explained that the timing is intended to mesh with NBC’s broadcast of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, which apparently is not a gag from an “SNL” skit.
“Saturday Night Live” impresario Lorne Michaels is taking over as executive producer; Debbie Vickers, who has produced the show for the past two decades, will exit along with Leno. And the show will return to its original home at 30 Rock in New York, where it was based until Johnny Carson, “Tonight’s” longest-running host at 30 years, moved it to Burbank in 1972.
There’s no news on Fallon’s “Late Night” replacement at 12:35 a.m. NBC said coyly in its announcement that “programming plans” for the time period are in development and will be announced soon. Under consideration is the return of “The Tonight Show” to its 90-minute format. The show, which debuted in 1954 with Steve Allen as host, was cut to one hour during Carson’s long run. “We are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was No. 1,” Burke said.
There’s one big difference: Carson shocked NBC suits in 1991 when he announced his retirement at an affiliate conference in New York. That followed news reports that NBC was concerned that Carson, who was in his mid-60s, was losing younger viewers and that NBC had guaranteed Leno the gig when Carson retired. Leno took over the show in 1992.
Leno, on the other hand, is being told when to step down — again. The 62-year-old’s contract expires next year. The other time Leno was informed that he was stepping down as “Tonight” host, it was to make way for the then-host of “Late Night,” Conan O’Brien. NBC announced in fall 2004 that the network had negotiated a contract with Conan promising him he’d replace Leno on “The Tonight Show” in June 2009.
In Wednesday’s announcement, NBC made no mention of O’Brien by name. In May 2009, he interrupted Leno’s run for seven months as NBC parked Leno at 10 p.m. weeknights, where he provided O’Brien with lousy lead-in ratings. Leno, you’ll recall, regained “The Tonight Show” keys after NBC decided to push the O’Brien-hosted show’s start time to 12:05 a.m. to squeeze Leno back into late night in some newly named half-hour late-night program.
When NBC announced that plan, the network said it hoped all the deals for the change would be done in time to mesh with NBC’s broadcast of the Winter Olympics! Sound familiar?
O’Brien did not sign, however, saying he’d rather walk than see “The Tonight Show” moved to 12:05 a.m. And he did. Leno’s not being moved out because he’s failing in the ratings. This season, his show is consistently beating ABC and CBS time slot rivals among 18- to 49-year-old viewers; Leno’s also first among viewers of all ages, regularly attracting an average of 3.5 million.
But Leno is in his 60s. When ABC moved Jimmy Kimmel, 45, to 11:35 p.m. in January, the press began speculating he would scoop up all the young viewers in the time slot before Leno’s heir apparent, Fallon, 38, eventually moved into the time period. Since his debut in the earlier time slot, Kimmel has achieved a slight lead, 332,000 on average, over Leno’s 319,000 viewers among 18- to 34-year-olds.