Late Night Wars, Part 3? NBC Discusses Leno Succession Plan

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LenoAccording to an item posted by The Hollywood Reporter late Friday night, NBC is once again delving into the thorny issue of getting Jay Leno to eventually release his iron grip on The Tonight Show. Citing unnamed “high-level industry sources” at NBC THR claims that NBC is planning to make the 2013-2014 season Leno’s final season as host of The Tonight Show.

The idea would be to finally move Leno out of his Tonight Show perch by May of 2014, when he would be replaced with current Late Night host Jimmy Fallon. Summer 2014 would be a “soft launch” for Fallon as Tonight Show host before a “formal fall kickoff,” whatever that means exactly. (One doesn’t usually think of late night talk shows as following the conventional television “season.”)

Given Leno’s past behavior in these situations, no one expects any of this to go down smoothly. What’s interesting is that this soon to be newest iteration of “Late Night Wars” includes elements of both past installments: the Leno vs. Letterman battle of 1993 and the Leno vs. “Team Coco” clash of 2009-10. Some of this hinges on David Letterman’s plans with CBS. The final year of Letterman’s current contract is 2014 and most think Leno won’t want to step down unless Letterman chooses to retire then. But even if Letterman does make 2014 his final year, NBC hopes that they won’t lose Fallon to CBS-who would then be looking for a new host-the way they lost Letterman 20 years ago. 

Many believe that NBC is also discussing these plans in reaction to Jimmy Kimmel’s strong debut in the 11:35 (opposite the Tonight Show) slot on ABC. While, much to the chagrin of all fans of good comedy, Leno’s Tonight Show still continues to get strong ratings and regularly bests both Letterman and Kimmel, Kimmel is strongly competitive with Leno in the demo (viewers age 18-49). As one of THR’s unnamed sources at NBC puts it: “Jay wins overall, but on any given night, it’s neck-and-neck in 18-49. I understand where they might have fear and also feel that they own the solution [in Fallon.]”

This is also the latest version of a problem NBC has been dealing with since 2004, when then-NBC President Jeff Zucker promised Conan O’Brien that he would get the Tonight Show by 2009, which O’Brien did, but only after Leno was given a new show at 10 pm which led into local newscasts, providing O’Brien’s Tonight Show with a significantly weakened lead-in. This led to a long and very public feud between “Team Coco” and NBC, who eventually had to pay O’Brien a large settlement while O’Brien left NBC to host his current show on TBS.

THR contacted a “Leno rep” for the story who said simply, “We do not speculate on rumor.” But the very fact that these rumors are being put out there probably means NBC is trying to find a way to get the now 63-year-old Leno to exit gracefully, something most people think there’s little chance he will do. Paging Bill Carter

Sources: NBC Discussing Jay Leno Exit Plan [The Hollywood Reporter]

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