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Jay Leno to leave NBC show (again) with Jimmy Fallon taking main slot

This is Leno’s second time leaving the show, following the disastrous changeover to Conan O’Brien in 2009.

Jay Leno will leave the Tonight show for the second time next year, with Jimmy Fallon (right) taking over.
Jay Leno will leave the Tonight show for the second time next year, with Jimmy Fallon (right) taking over.
Image: AP

NBC HAS CONFIRMED a long-rumoured switch in its late night schedule, replacing Jay Leno at the ‘Tonight Show’ with Jimmy Fallon and moving the iconic franchise back to New York.

Fallon will take over next February, with the switch coinciding with NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Veteran ‘Saturday Night Live’ producer Lorne Michaels will also take over as executive producer of ‘Tonight’.

NBC made no announcement on who would replace Fallon at the 12:35am ‘Late Night’ slot, although Seth Meyers – who took over from Fallon as the host of the ‘Weekend Update’ slot on ‘Saturday Night Live’, and is that show’s head writer – is considered a strong candidate.

The change at ‘Tonight’, the longest-running and most popular late-night talk show, had been widely reported but not confirmed by the network until Wednesday. NBC jas reportedly just wrapped up negotiations with Fallon on a contract extension.

Steve Burke, chief executive officer of NBC Universal, said the network is purposefully making the move when Leno is still at the top of the ratings, just as when Leno replaced Johnny Carson in 1992.

“Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent, and this is his time,” Burke said.

Leno, in a statement, offered his congratulations to Fallon.

“I hope you’re as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you’re the old guy,” he said. “If you need me, I’ll be at the garage.”

Fallon said, “I’m really excited to host a show that starts today instead of tomorrow.”

Emotions were mixed among people waiting outside Leno’s studio in Burbank, California, to attend the taping of yesterday’s show.

“We love you, Jimmy!” said Natalie Renfro, 45, of Salt Lake City. But she gave a shout out to Leno, too: “I’ll miss that big chin!”

Ryan Kelly, 39, of Los Angeles, said he’s a Leno fan but added that the comedian has “had a good run. [...] It’s probably time for a fresh face. He’s done a good job and I’m sure he’ll pop up on TV somewhere else.”

‘Whatever this show is called’

As for switching to Fallon, “I’ll give it a shot,” Kelly said.

Leno couldn’t resist a jab at NBC in his opening monologue for last night’s show, even as he as he lauded Fallon as “a hell of a guy” who is going to do a “great job.”

“I just have one request for Jimmy: We’ve all fought, kicked and scratched to get this network up to fifth place. Now we have to keep it there. Jimmy, don’t let it slip into sixth!” Leno joked.

Fallon took a puckish approach in his monologue.

“Welcome! This is ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’ …for now,” he said.

You guys probably heard the news: I’m going to be taking over the ‘Tonight Show’ next February! But don’t worry. Until February, our focus is right here on whatever this show is called.

If at first you don’t succeed…

On his ‘Late Show’ on rival network CBS, David Letterman feasted on NBC’s announcement.

“Jay Leno now is being replaced, and this is the second time this has happened,” he said in his monologue.

I mean, it’s crazy. He’s being replaced by a younger late night talk show host – what could possibly go wrong?

Honestly. They had pretty good luck with this in the past.

Later, Letterman offered a backhanded salute to Leno that wished him well with his stand-up appearances.

“But good luck to Jay. I know he’ll be out on the road, getting it done and taking care of business. And congratulations on a nice long run there at the ‘Tonight Show’, if, in fact, you’re not coming back,” Letterman said.

He devoted his trademark Top 10 list to “things we’ll miss about Jay Leno”, including this at No. 4: “Can’t remember the name of the bit, but it’s the one where Jay is walking.”

Return cements New York’s TV status

NBC has been quietly building a new studio for Fallon at its Rockefeller Center headquarters. ‘Tonight’ began in New York in the 1950s, but Carson moved it to California in 1972.

Starting next year, Fallon, Letterman, and the Comedy Central duo of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will all tape late-night shows in New York. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and TBS’s Conan O’Brien will be the top California-based shows.

“The ‘Tonight’ show will bring even more jobs and economic activity to our city, and we couldn’t be happier that one of New York’s own is bringing the show back to where it started, and where it belongs,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

New York state recently added a tax credit in its budget that seemed designed specifically to benefit NBC’s move east with ‘Tonight’.

While a storied part of television tradition, the network late-night shows find themselves with much more competition now with cable programs like ‘Adult Swim’, smaller talk shows hosted by Chelsea Handler and the Comedy Central pair of Stewart and Colbert, and the growing use of DVRs for viewers to watch programming originally aired earlier.

NBC is worried that CBS’s Jimmy Kimmel will establish himself as a go-to late night performer for a younger generation if the network doesn’t move swiftly to install the youthful Fallon. ABC moved Kimmel’s time slot to directly compete with Leno earlier this year.

But the move also has the potential to backfire with Leno’s fans, who did not embrace Conan O’Brien when Leno was temporarily moved to prime time a few years ago in what turned out to be an ill-fated scheduling switch.

Conan O’Brien was given only eight months as the host of ‘Tonight’, before NBC moved Leno back to his old time slot and gave O’Brien a $33m settlement. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

O’Brien was promoted to ‘Tonight’ in June 2009, with Leno given his own earlier, prime-time slot. Ratings for both were poor and ultimately led the slot for the new ‘Jay Leno Show’ to be pushed back to 11:35pm – a slot usually occupied by ‘Tonight’ – with O’Brien’s show then sent back to 12:05am.

O’Brien objected to the move, saying airing the ‘Tonight Show’ after midnight would “seriously damage what I consider to be the greater franchise in the history of broadcasting” – also pointing out that Fallon, who inherited O’Brien’s ‘Late Night’ slot, would be sent even later.

The acrimony ended with O’Brien leaving NBC in a $33 million settlement, while Leno was restored to the ‘Tonight’ show after the hiatus caused by the 2010 Winter Olympics.

‘Not going to shoot themselves in the foot’

“The guys at NBC are not totally stupid and are not going to shoot themselves in the foot,” said Gary Carr, senior vice president and executive director of national broadcast for the ad buying firm TargetCast.

“I think it’s a good move for them long-term. But it may have short-term ramifications.”

NBC has long prided itself on smooth transitions, but that reputation took a hit with O’Brien’s short-lived takeover of ‘Tonight’ and Leno’s failed move to prime time.

The Leno-Fallon changeover didn’t begin smoothly either. Leno had been cracking jokes about NBC’s prime-time futility, angering NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, who sent a note to Leno telling him to cool it. That only made Leno go after NBC management much harder.

The first public effort toward making the transition smooth came Monday night, when Leno and Fallon appeared in a comic video making fun of the late-night rumours. It aired between the two men’s shows on NBC.

John Dawson, general manager for five NBC affiliates that have extensive reach throughout Kansas, said it will be difficult to give up a programme that wins its time period by 33 per cent.

“Jay has always been a great friend to the affiliates,” he said. “For that alone it will be hard to give up.”

But he said he believes in Fallon and in NBC’s corporate owner, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company.

“Comcast certainly knows how to launch entertainment programming,” Dawson said.

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