"The Tonight Show" is back in the headlines again, and for a familiar reason.
A New York Times report suggests that NBC will be moving the show to New York City and has committed to Jimmy Fallon, who now hosts NBC's "Late Night," as the next host. Meanwhile, current "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno is throwing verbal jibes at his NBC bosses, calling them "snakes" in his Monday monologue – only days after the Times story broke.
For NBC's marquee franchise, succession issues have never been easy. The clash between Mr. Leno and David Letterman over who would follow Johnny Carson, who retired as host in 1992, spawned a book (“The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night”) and an HBO movie. And in 2010, the botched attempt to replace Leno with Conan O'Brien tarnished both hosts and the show.
The stakes are high. "The Tonight Show" has been a comparative success amid a years-long run of dismal ratings for NBC, and Mr. Fallon stands to inherit arguably the top seat in television entertainment. Amid predictions of the death of late-night television, the rumblings reveal its still-sizable influence.
“These transitions have been so incredibly ham-handed,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “But all the attention they’ve gotten shows that people still really care, despite all the talk that TV has become a dinosaur. It shows this really does matter.”
So far, NBC has not confirmed any of the reports, saying only that it is upgrading Fallon's studio in New York as part of a larger renovation of the building. But if NBC does move to Fallon, the network would seem to be acknowledging the changes in the television landscape – and attempting to keep up with them.
Leno’s contract expires in 2014, and NBC is faced with a challenge for younger viewers from ABC’s "Jimmy Kimmel Live." But the challenge goes well beyond Mr. Kimmel. Although the format for late-night TV has changed remarkably little in 50 years – a nice host, a humorous sidekick, a bandleader, a desk, and a sofa – the way younger audiences consume it has.
“My students don’t watch the ‘Tonight Show’ or ‘Late Night’ – they prefer to watch excerpts later on their computers using YouTube,” says Charles Coletta, who teaches the history of popular culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio.
In many cases, they wait to hear about the highlights from their friends – by Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, or cellphone. Then, they can watch whole episodes via Hulu and other websites, or just visit YouTube for a brief exerpt.
“Just like many young people no longer read newspapers or watch television news shows hosted by a traditional news anchor, the whole concept of watching a traditionally formatted nighttime talk show may soon be outdated no matter how young the host or what city it comes from,” says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University.
Fallon’s strengths play into this, say analysts. Less a good interviewer than a performer whose bits go viral – such as a spoof he did last year of Charlie Sheen – Fallon also brings a computer to his desk and incorporates e-mails and tweets into his onscreen segments.
“It might seem a bit odd that NBC is getting rid of Leno when he is the only part of the network that is doing very well,” says Mr. Thompson. “But this is clearly a way that they are trying to go after younger viewers and position themselves for the long term – to develop the next Carson.”
Lorne Michaels, the creator of "Saturday Night Live" (where Fallon got his start), has said Fallon is “the closest to [Johnny] Carson that I've seen of this generation." But if NBC is to groom Fallon to fill those shoes, it needs to avoid the infighting and recriminations of past "Tonight Show" succession battles.
“Jimmy Fallon is very popular and likeable and if Leno gets mean spirited about the hand over or ingracious, NBC is in for a lot of trouble,” says Professor Colleta. “If it turns into a soap opera, it could sour things for Fallon’s image.”
Len Shyles, a media theorist at Villanova University, will be watching to see how Fallon might handle the unique and evolving needs of late night.
“Viewers want both variety and unity,” he says. “People want and expect the form of the show to be modular and comfortable … but for the content to change every day. It will be great to see how Fallon measures up to the all time gold standard of Johnny Carson.”