April 3, 2013

THE SKED: It’s Official – Leno Hands Over the “Tonight Show” Pink Slip to Jimmy Fallon


Well, as TONIGHT SHOW transitions go, this one was relatively painless (so far).  NBC announced today what’s been an open secret for weeks:  in Spring 2014 (specific date TBD), after what’s sure to be an extensive promotional launch during the 2014 Winter Olympics, possession of the Tonight Show desk will pass from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon.  Everyone is being very gracious about it (so far).

A few thoughts:

It was time.  Leno still leads the 11:30PM (or 11:35, or 11:37) ratings in the older-skewing total households measurement, last night scoring a 2.5 in total households compared to 2.3 for both David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel, but in 18-49s, it’s been getting much closer, with Kimmel neck-and-neck with Leno (last night, Kimmel took the lead with an 0.8 and Leno was slightly behind at 0.7, while Letterman trailed with 0.4).  Even those numbers are misleading, because Leno’s end of the 18-49 demo is clumped toward its older viewers who will age out of it relatively soon, while Kimmel’s are younger.  (Also misleading:  the idea that ABC was better off with Nightline at 11:30–even though the news show was equal or even slightly higher than Kimmel in the demo, advertisers pay far better rates for an entertainment show due in part to that younger skewing demo, and Nightline has little ancillary value.)

Other numbers were important too.  The Tonight Show used to be a cash cow for NBC, pushing out reliably massive profits.  But it’s an enormously expensive production, thanks in part to Leno’s long-time loyalty to his very large group of senior writers, and profits have been squeezed almost to the breaking point.  The Fallon version, which will be based in New York, will certainly be leaner, cheaper and more profitable.

Lorne Michaels comes along with Fallon as a producer, and he’ll keep his authority over Late Night as well (the rumor is that Seth Meyers will take over that show), meaning that Michaels will be more powerful than he’s ever been–which is saying something–producing virtually all of NBC’s late-night programming.

How patient will NBC be?  We all know what happened when Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show didn’t get off to a fast start, and right now, Fallon is at a 1.5 in households and 0.5 in the demo in the (less-watched) 12:30 slot.  If the Tonight Show numbers dip from Leno’s level a few weeks into the succession, will Comcast nurture the show, or panic?  Anyone for a primetime Leno strip?

Assuming Leno remains gone from NBC, what’s next for him?  He’s reportedly sidelined until his NBC deal expires in Fall 2014, but after that, will he really be able to stay out of the game?  And does FOX want in the game enough to sign him?  If not FOX, there would be a certain tasty irony if he joined Conan in the cable universe.

And finally, now that the desks at NBC and ABC are set for (presumably) the next generation of late-night talk, all eyes will be on CBS, where Letterman is now very much the elder statesman of the field.  Craig Ferguson deserves the slot, but he’s never been a breakout star–will CBS look elsewhere?

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."