This is the photo NBC sent out on Wednesday to accompany its press release about the Leno-Fallon “Tonight Show” takeover. What does the photo mean? Search me. (Photo: NBC)
By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, April 4, 2013 — They didn’t have to do anything.
That’s what’s so mysterious about NBC’s decision to push Jay Leno out the door to pave the way for Jimmy Fallon to take over “The Tonight Show.”
Lost in all the hysteria in the 24 hours since the announcement (not to mention all the tumult behind the scenes and on stage over the last several weeks) was this simple fact: “The Tonight Show” was fine, and NBC could have kept Leno around for years and it still would have been fine.
Instead, you have a network and its executives behaving as if “The Tonight Show” was an old wooden house that was burning to the ground, and they’re a group of firemen who have been called upon in a dire emergency to save it.
So they applied the most drastic measures possible — awarding the show to another younger guy who, like Conan O’Brien before him, acquits himself well every night on the network’s other late-night show, but who, like Conan, is no sure thing in the earlier time period.
And as if that wasn’t enough to extinguish the “blazing inferno” that is late-night’s highest-rated show, the network decides to move the show to New York from Los Angeles — the city where it reigned supreme in its time period for most of its 42 years there.
“Tonight Show” turmoil: Our coverage so far:
Fallon in 2011: I’ll take over when Jay’s ready
Leno jokes: ‘Young’ Jay will replace ‘old’ Dave
Move ‘The Tonight Show’ to NYC? Fuhgettaboutit
Complete timeline of Jay Leno’s war with NBC
Certainly, the real conflagration burning down the house at NBC is its prime-time lineup — which for years now has featured show after show after show that no one wants to watch. Meanwhile, with Jay Leno as host, “The Tonight Show” has been a show people want to watch for 22 years. What’s wrong with this picture?
Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon is being portrayed by NBC as the man who will “save” “The Tonight Show” — a show that didn’t need saving.
So why’d they do it? A couple of theories on that — all wrong-headed:
1) Jay, who will be 63 this month, was getting too old, and if he continued as host and aged on the air, younger viewers would abandon him for Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.
This happens to be hogwash. Leno has been aging on the air for 20 years and has long held his own with the younger viewers NBC craves. The thing about this “aging” issue: When a TV personality becomes “too old” to continue, it becomes fairly obvious to everyone. Clearly, Leno’s voice still booms and, to all appearances, he seems to maintain a hale and hearty constitution. Who knows: Maybe as he approached 70, he would have seemed “too old” to host a late-night show. Or maybe he would have become even more beloved. Who knows? We’ll never know now.
Moreover, it’s doubtful that Fallon, at least in his first year or more, will equal Leno’s ratings in total viewers (that is, people of any and all ages), even if he draws a respectable number of younger viewers. Thus, with Fallon, NBC will draw fewer viewers overall, but it might get a bump up in the 18-49 demo. That’s wrong-headed for a very basic reason: At its core, network TV is supposed to be about growing audiences, not accepting lower ones, for whatever the reason.
2) If Fallon wasn’t guaranteed “The Tonight Show” in this round of contract negotiations (which apparently wrapped the day before NBC’s announcement this week), then he’d leave for another network.
Maybe he’d even replace Letterman on CBS in a few years and would then be competing with NBC. Or maybe not. The real question is: Who cares? This reason is always trotted out by some at times like these, as if a talent like Fallon is so irreplaceable that the network’s very future hangs in the balance. It’s just not true. Or, at the very least, one has no way of knowing if it will be true or not. Thus, there’s no rational reason to base decision-making on that kind of “what if.”
And by the way, there’s no guarantee that Fallon will do any better in the ratings on “The Tonight Show” than he’s doing on “Late Night.” Nor is there any evidence he would beat the pants off NBC if he wound up elsewhere. Here’s a prediction: When Fallon takes over “The Tonight Show,” that show’s traditional viewers will flock to Letterman and Dave will emerge as the top-rated personality in late-night.
3) “The Tonight Show” needed fixing: On the contrary, “The Tonight Show” is a well-oiled machine, functioning in all ways as it is supposed to — writers and producers creating funny, topical monologues for the host, dreaming up comedy bits, and booking A-list celebrities for Leno to chat with and musical guests to end each evening. It’s not rocket science, but nor is it easy to do. And yet, NBC has decided the time is ripe to completely dismantle and uproot this thing.
And by the way, part of the show’s success stems from its location in southern California, where it is well-established as a must-visit destination for every TV, movie and music star in the area — which happens to be most of them. Moving this show to New York, where it will be just another NBC late-night show originating from 30 Rock, just feels like the wrong move.
Don’t miss this one from the TV Howl archives — April 2011: Kimmel vs. Fallon: A tale of two Jimmies — I told you so!
The bottom line is: What if NBC had just done nothing, and instead focused its attention on the dayparts that are really in trouble — such as prime time and mornings? Here’s another prediction: The world would not end. And NBC would have had something to brag about — a nearly unbroken record of dominance in late-night. And now? Who knows?
Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org