Jimmy Fallon is waiting in the wings. (Los Angeles Times )
To renew or not to renew, that is the question.
NBC has a little over a year to decide whether to stick with "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno or make the switch to Jimmy Fallon, the host of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
Although Leno's contract isn't up until September 2013, ABC's decision to move "Jimmy Kimmel Live" from midnight to 11:35 a.m. starting early next year may have NBC executives thinking about the future. After all, Leno is 62 and his audience isn't getting any younger either.
A big factor in making that decision will be how successful Kimmel is in his new time slot, and whether he is able to take away younger viewers from Leno. If he is, the whispers will start at NBC HQ that it is time to move Fallon.
While "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" is still the ratings champ of late-night TV, his audience has fallen sharply over the last few years. In 2008, it was not unusual for the show to attract close to 5 million viewers. Now it is averaging 3.7 million viewers. Letterman's audience has also shrunk, but not as dramatically as Leno's has.
Some of the decline can be attributed to an increasingly competitive marketplace. However, Leno's drop also indicates that his show has never fully regained the audience it lost when NBC put Conan O'Brien in as "Tonight Show" host and tried Leno out in prime time. Both moves flopped and Leno was brought back to as "Tonight Show" host and O'Brien ended up moving to TBS with his own show.
Clearly NBC won't want to go through all that drama again. Part of NBC's problem then was that it made the decision to give O'Brien the "Tonight Show" job in 2009 when it renewed his contract in 2004.
At the time it was seen as a smart bet. NBC had a succession plan in place five years in advance. O'Brien would stay with the network knowing that he'd get his dream job.
But when 2009 rolled around Leno was still doing big business. He made clear that he had no desire to go into retirement and that if he left NBC he'd find a late-night job somewhere else.
NBC then decided to try to have its cake and eat it too. It put O'Brien in the "Tonight Show" job but gave Leno a show in prime time, which it figured was better than having to compete against him. The not-so-subtle message to O'Brien was, "Leno was ready to jump back into late-night if you can't carry the load."
Of course, we all know what happened next. O'Brien's show started strong then sagged (having Leno in the shadows could not have been good for his psyche) and Leno's show bombed. NBC decided to reinstall Leno as "Tonight Show" host, which led to O'Brien quitting.
Given how Leno has yet to regain his audience, it may be easier for NBC to put Fallon in as "Tonight Show" host next fall. Also, with Kimmel now at 11:35 p.m. and Arsenio Hall launching his own late-night talk show, the number of places for Leno to hang his hat if he doesn't want to hang it up are infinitely smaller than they were in 2009.
The average age of Leno's audience is 58, according to Nielsen, while Fallon's average viewer is 53. That will have to factor into NBC's thinking. Also, even with his recent pay cut, Leno is still pulling down more than Fallon and his show costs more to make.
Transitioning from 12:35 a.m. to 11:35 a.m. may be easier for Fallon than it was for O'Brien. Fallon's humor is broader than O'Brien's and his cutesy persona has won him lots of fans. He got high marks for his hosting of the Emmy Awards in 2010 and was even under consideration to host next year's Oscars. While O'Brien often seems jaded and snarky (small wonder given what's happened to him over the last few years), Fallon is like a puppy that just wants to play all day.
Still, a case can be made to buy Fallon as much time as possible. The budget cuts on Leno's show should make it profitable again and Fallon could use more time to fine tune his interviewing skills. Also, NBC has bigger priorities than late night right now, including getting the morning show "Today" back on track and improving its prime-time performance.
If or when Fallon does eventually succeed Leno, NBC would be wise to resist the urge to move him to Los Angeles and instead keep him in his New York comfort zone. Oh and whatever you do, don't give Jay Leno another prime-time show.
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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.