Leno, Fallon, Kimmel and the new Late Night War
3/18/2013 10:36:00 AM
NBC appears to be looking for ways to get rid of Jay Leno. They might be able to do it this time.
The Hollywood Reporter, uh, reports that NBC is quietly exploring ways to replace Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon as host of the Tonight Show. I know this sounds familiar. After all, NBC just went through an embarrassing episode in which Jay Leno was removed as host of the Tonight Show, only to restore him to his old job 9 months later.
Everyone is joking that Leno will be back behind the Tonight Show desk in 2016. Not so this time around. The circumstances that led to the Leno/Conan fiasco don’t exist.
Bill Carter’s book “The War for Late Night” does a fantastic job of chronicling the years-long drama that led to the Leno/Conan feud of 2009-2010 (The drama laid out in his first book, “The Late Shift,” was so fascinating it made me want to pursue broadcasting as a profession).
In 2003, Conan O’Brien was red hot. He hosted the Emmy’s that year. Critics and viewers thought he did a great job, and the consensus inside the TV business was that he was ready to break out of “Late Night” and into a talk show at an earlier time. Fox wanted to jump back into the Late Night business (Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase had been notable failures), and they made a very lucrative offer to Conan O’Brien.
Conan and Fox were a natural fit. The two entities had a history, thanks to Conan’s work as a writer for “The Simpsons.” He was a perfect fit for Fox’s audience – which was much younger, on average, than ABC, NBC, and CBS. Conan would have received a big promotional push on NFL broadcasts. Thanks to the Fox affiliates’ tendency to schedule local news at 9:00 Central time, Conan would have had a half hour jump on Letterman and Leno.
Conan’s camp turned down the Fox offer for two reasons: 1) he wasn’t sure his talk show would get clearance on all Fox affiliates. The Fox stations were used to the ratings (and revenue) brought in by reruns of “Seinfeld” and other off-network sitcoms. 2) NBC dangled the possibility of hosting the Tonight Show over his head.
Despite the fact that Johnny Carson retired 21 years ago, the Tonight Show has always been considered Johnny’s show. Anyone who hosts the show wants to claim the legacy of Carson. They want Ed Ames’ tomahawk throw, Carnac, Aunt Blabby, and 30 years worth of unscripted moments between Johnny and Ed. Leno’s version had its moments (Hugh Grant’s 1995 interview after he was busted for soliciting a prostitute in LA comes to mind). But by and large, when you think of the Tonight Show, you think of Johnny.
Conan was so in love with the Carson legacy that he signed a deal with NBC – for less money – that promised him the Tonight Show in 2009. Even Johnny Carson himself admitted that it was “a long engagement before the marriage.” Despite the $45 million penalty payment promised to Conan if he didn’t get the show, five years was plenty of time for NBC to change its mind.
NBC actually pulled the same stunt with David Letterman in 1993. In a last ditch attempt to keep Letterman from jumping to CBS, NBC offered Dave the Tonight Show, effective in April of 1994. Despite the fact that Letterman was offered the show he always wanted, his representatives told him to say no. 15 months separated January 1993 from April 1994, and it was more than enough time for Jay Leno to win back the job that was about to be taken away.
Leno was not happy with the fact that he was being forced out of his job. As his run as Tonight Show host wound down 2008, he started dropping hints that he was going to ABC. NBC took the threat seriously, and the research department concluded that Jay Leno at ABC would kill Conan’s Tonight Show.
We all know what happened next. NBC tried to split the baby, and it blew up in their face. Leno’s prime time show flopped, Conan was exiled from TV (for several months), and Jay ended up back at 10:35.
Something happened between 2010 and now. Leno’s core audience of baby-boomers aged out of the advertiser-friendly 25-54 demo. Their loyalties are divided between Leno and Letterman. The post-boomers are watching Jimmy Kimmel at 10:35. NBC wants to put Fallon on at an earlier time before ABC gobbles up all the younger viewers for good.
Leno has no leverage this time around. ABC is happy with Jimmy Kimmel. CBS has David Letterman (and Craig Ferguson). Fox would make a run, but the old-school Leno would probably turn it down. He grew up in the world of three networks, and to those guys, Fox doesn’t exist.
Late Night TV viewing is changing, of course, thanks to the DVR…and the ability to watch the funny clips on the internet. Thanks to time shifting, there’s no such thing as late night. In the 70′s and 80′s, Johnny Carson was the “King of Late Night” because he had the highest ratings.
Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon can now compete for the title of “King of Facebook Shares.” That’s how the game will be played in the 21st Century.