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Late-night moves give Lorne Michaels even more power at NBC

The steward of 'Saturday Night Live' might be facing his biggest challenge in keeping 'The Tonight Show' ahead of its competition.

April 06, 2013|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Lorne Michaels, left, Jimmy Fallon and then NBC President Jeff Zucker in 2008.
Lorne Michaels, left, Jimmy Fallon and then NBC President Jeff Zucker in… (Chris Haston, NBCUniversal )

Jimmy Fallon may have been crowned the new king of late-night TV this week, but he owes a lot to the man behind the throne: Lorne Michaels.

Fans of "Saturday Night Live" will recognize Michaels, the show's creator, as the grumpy paterfamilias lurking in the wings on any given night. The "laser cats" bit from a few years back consisted of a poker-faced Michaels enduring inane pitches from cast members Andy Samberg and Bill Hader and then deadpanning: "Get out of my office."

But that office in Rockefeller Center is now the most critical perch at NBC, where Michaels towers as the last man standing at a last-place network. Michaels discovered Fallon, produces his late-night show and, in a coup that dented L.A.'s showbiz status, engineered a move for the No. 1-rated "Tonight Show" back to Manhattan after a 40-year exodus in Burbank.

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"It was weirdly emotionally satisfying, moving 'The Tonight Show' back to its origin in New York City," Michaels said in a phone interview.

To Michaels, the move constitutes a homecoming. The Canadian-born impresario as a teenager came down on a bus from Toronto to watch Jack Paar host "Tonight." In the years since, he has become one of the TV figures most closely associated with New York, so much so that his production company is called Broadway Video.

This winter, with NBC's prime time sinking beneath the weight of "Smash," "Do No Harm" and other flops greenlighted by entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, "SNL" briefly became the network's highest-rated program, even though it starts at a time when many people are either asleep or out of the house. And if that weren't enough, Michaels has been able to yoke his "SNL" talent stable to lucrative sitcom and movie projects. One result was "30 Rock," Tina Fey's "SNL" spoof that in January wrapped up a 138-episode run.

So it's no wonder the Fallon switch has given Michaels, at 68, more power than ever.

"As the executive producer of possibly 111/2 hours of programming a week on NBC [next year], I think it's safe to say Lorne is about to become the new king of late night," said Warren Littlefield, the producer who served as entertainment president of NBC during its 1990s glory years. (That number of hours assumes that Michaels would also keep stewardship of the 12:35 a.m. slot, although NBC has not announced its plans yet.)

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The bedrock of Michaels' empire remains "SNL," which during a nearly 40-year run has survived countless cast changes and perennial criticism ("Saturday Night Dead," as detractors prefer to call it) to uncover and promote comic actors who end up defining their generations, including John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell and Fey.

"I don't think that it is just coincidental that so many former 'SNL' players wound up as movie stars and part of historic sitcoms," said Doug Spero, an associate professor of mass communication at Meredith College in North Carolina. "The machine has to be fed and Lorne Michaels has been the assembly line foreman."

But the "Tonight" move puts Michaels on a new and much more competitive level. NBC is struggling to maintain its late-night lead amid intensifying competition. ABC recently moved Jimmy Kimmel up one half-hour to 11:35 p.m. — a gutsy play that NBC is hoping to match by promoting Fallon to replace Jay Leno. Meanwhile, Comedy Central has made impressive inroads among younger viewers with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Recaps of those hosts' rants and wisecracks rack up high page views on websites and blogs.

Michaels is a veteran with a thorough understanding of comedy as delicate art and brutal business — hence his increasing value for NBC.

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The key will be the young viewers who have gravitated to shows like "SNL" — although they might be doing so on Hulu or their cellphones rather than during the live telecast.

"With comedy still struggling on broadcast TV, [Michaels] has become important to NBC's fortunes," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media in New York. "His shows attract younger viewers."

Some critics argue that Michaels' approach might be too hip for the room — a rush to the edgy when NBC should be trying to go broad.

"NBC should be careful of letting itself become too identified by the Lorne Michaels' comedy brand," said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University. "A network is much more than that, and any network that will allow itself to be labeled by the 'SNL'/Fallon brand could be headed toward niche status in the eyes of the broader viewing public."

Skeptics fret moreover that the competition has made it nearly impossible to clear a profit with a traditional late-night show. Last year, "Tonight," for decades a cash cow for NBC, took the unprecedented step of laying off staff members in a bid to trim costs. Network bosses framed the move as a delayed budgetary move following Leno's ill-fated prime-time show, but the drift was unmistakable: The golden age is past.

But the man who rejected all those laser-cat pitches? He sees hope for "Tonight."

"If you can find a way to make it a hit, it's usually profitable," Michaels said.

scott.collins@latimes.com

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