By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, March 22, 2013 — Moving “The Tonight Show” to New York would be a huge mistake.
Why? Because it will instantly rob the show of the one advantage it has been able to count on for decades as the No. 1 show in late-night: First dibs on Los Angeles-based guests. And since L.A. is where 90 percent of the nation’s top movie, TV and music stars live and work, it stands to reason that a show like “The Tonight Show” would want to preserve that access.
But no. Reports this week have NBC ramping up the construction of a new studio within its 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York that would be the new home of “The Tonight Show” hosted by Jimmy Fallon. The move would uproot the show from southern California, where it has reigned as the top-rated show in late-night for the better part of 41 years.
Even worse, NBC would be voluntarily ceding its hard-won top position in the L.A. booking wars to the one guy whose move to an earlier time period has given NBC and its executives so much angst in the first place, Jimmy Kimmel.
When or if “The Tonight Show” moves to New York, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will instantly become the first choice for L.A.-based celebrities and their publicity handlers — easily out-booking Craig Ferguson on CBS and Conan O’Brien on TBS. Meanwhile, in New York, the new Fallon “Tonight Show” will be competing for guests — always a more-limited pool of them in New York, compared to L.A. — with David Letterman.
And unless Fallon can maintain “The Tonight Show’s” top position in the ratings, Letterman will be first in line for top celebrities when they’re in New York. Can you imagine? Guests will appear on “Letterman” on CBS, and then, the next evening, they’ll be on Fallon’s “Tonight Show” — signaling to anyone who watches late-night TV that NBC is no longer in the driver’s seat.
In fact, that scenario is what happens now with A-list guests in New York — they go on “Letterman” first and then show up the next day on Fallon’s “Late Night.” So how will “The Tonight Show” benefit from playing second fiddle to Letterman? The answer: It won’t.
So why is NBC considering this move in the first place? I suspect it has to do with issues of internal management combined with a dash of wishful thinking.
Network executives might feel the consolidation of NBC’s three big late-night shows — “Tonight,” “Late Night” and “Saturday Night Live”– under one roof will somehow bring all three shows into some kind of hoped-for creative uniformity based somewhat on the successful “SNL” model. Fallon’s “Late Night” is heavy on “SNL”-type sketch comedy and it is assumed that it will continue in that vein with probable new host Seth Meyers. The aim would then be to transform “The Tonight Show” into the same kind of show — all under overseer Lorne Michaels, of course.
Michaels would probably relish the opportunity to assume control of “The Tonight Show.” He may even feel he deserves it, because of all he has contributed to NBC’s success in late-night over the years. He wouldn’t be entirely wrong there, and NBC might be willing to reward his loyalty, hard work, and talent for generating profits with this new trophy. In addition, NBC might feel that the “SNL” approach is only possible in New York for some reason.
Moreover, the last time they moved a New York guy to L.A. — Conan — it didn’t work out. So maybe they’re reluctant to send another New York guy to the West Coast. Or maybe Fallon is dead set against moving to California (although I doubt this). Whatever is going on behind the scenes at 30 Rock, none of it seems compelling enough to propel moving “The Tonight Show” to New York.
The wishful thinking part is this: That when it comes to booking guests, so many of them come to New York on their publicity tours for new projects that there are more than enough A-level celebrities running around midtown at any given time that there’s no longer a shortage of them these days for the New York-based late-night shows.
Why is that thinking “wishful”? Because it’s not true. Despite all the talk shows here, and all the celebs that parachute in to make the talk-show rounds, there are never enough to go around — which creates “slack” times when talk shows struggle for top guests.
This is a truism that cannot be wished away. It’s also a truism that one of the advantages “The Tonight Show” has enjoyed for 41 years has been its position at the pinnacle of the Hollywood establishment — first with Carson and then with Leno, who’s a Hollywood/Beverly Hills insider if there ever was one.
The reasons NBC has for moving “The Tonight Show” to New York City would seem to have everything to do with internal network politics, and nearly nothing to do with benefiting the show and ensuring its future as TV’s top-rated late-night show.
Of course, will someone please explain to me why NBC is monkeying around with this show in the first place, when so many other issues — most notably, prime time and mornings — would seem to demand the majority of the company’s attention at this time?
In the final analysis, moving the show back to New York after 41 years of success and warm-weather comfort in southern California makes about as much sense as bringing the Dodgers back to Brooklyn.
Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org
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