Jay Leno has Jimmy Fallon behind him here, but the younger host may take his… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
NBC's "Tonight Show" may soon be switching hosts — and coasts.
The long-struggling network is finalizing plans to replace Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon in 2014, people close to the situation said Wednesday. And in a blow for Southern California, the strategy also calls for NBC to move the show back to New York, after serving as a fixture in what ex-host Johnny Carson jokingly dubbed "beautiful downtown Burbank" for 41 years.
The switch will touch off a new round of musical chairs in late-night, one of the most competitive areas in TV. ABC recently promoted Jimmy Kimmel to the plum 11:35 p.m. position, directly competing with "Tonight" and CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," which may have forced NBC's hand.
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The move would give Fallon a greater claim in New York and simultaneously dim the late-night presence in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world and home to most major film and television stars. More than 150 local workers tied to "Tonight" also could end up looking for work.
Executives are still mulling the exact timing, because Leno's contract is not up until September 2014. However, there has been talk about having Fallon move from his current time slot of 12:35 a.m. to take over "Tonight" at 11:35 p.m. as soon as next summer or perhaps even earlier.
Although Leno, 62, is the still the most-watched late-night show host, Kimmel has been making inroads with viewers ages 18 to 49, the group most attractive to advertisers. Letterman is 65, nearly a generation older than Kimmel (45) and Fallon (38). NBC brass doesn't want Kimmel to get firmly established before it gets a chance to move Fallon into the "Tonight" chair.
The youngest of the major late-night hosts, Fallon has shaken up the traditional talk-show format pioneered by Carson and others while keeping its basic joke- and guest-driven imperatives intact. Fallon could not be reached for comment but is believed to want to stay based in New York.
As host of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," he has invited guests to play unusual games — one involves a Russian roulette-style contest in which players guess whether an egg smashed against their foreheads will be raw or hard-boiled. Fallon has also become a viral-video favorite with his song parodies; one recent number spun Lance Armstrong's Oprah Winfrey interview into a country tune.
"Advertisers will embrace Jimmy Fallon," predicted Brad Adgate, analyst for New York ad firm Horizon Media. "He's likable and very mainstream."
Not everyone is convinced, however.
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"NBC needs to keep in mind that the audience demos right after the local news aren't the same as during Fallon's time slot," said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University. "That Fallon is successful during a later hour is no guarantee he would be such a hit at the earlier hour."
This isn't the first time NBC has tried to replace Leno. In 2009, Conan O'Brien succeeded Leno as host, only to have Leno — who had been shunted into an ill-conceived prime-time show that quickly flopped — reclaim the job several months later with a spectacular burst of bad publicity. O'Brien, who was livid at NBC's efforts to demote him back to a post-midnight slot, left the network and now hosts a show on the TBS cable channel.
NBC is hoping history doesn't repeat itself this time. A person close to Leno said he is on board with the plan.
However, Leno — who saw the "Tonight" staff sharply cut last year in a virtually unprecedented cost-cutting move — has been taking lots of shots in his opening monologue the last few weeks at NBC's poor prime-time performance. The host was miffed when NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt complained to him about jokes Leno made last month about Univision surpassing NBC in the ratings race for adults under age 50. Earlier this week, Leno raised eyebrows with a joke referring to NBC executives as "snakes."
"Leno's got to be annoyed that he's lately become nothing more than a network chess piece," said Bill Zehme, an author who co-wrote Leno's book "Leading With My Chin" and is at work on a long biography of Carson.
Unlike O'Brien, who moved from New York to Los Angeles when he landed the "Tonight Show" gig, Fallon is expected to remain in New York.
An NBC spokeswoman confirmed that a new studio is being built for Fallon, which was first reported by the New York Times. That could raise costs for a network that needs to be watching its pennies.
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"Everything is New York is more expensive," said one well-known producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging industry relationships. "That will be the challenging thing.... The economics just aren't what they once were."