Tuned In

It’s Official: Fallon In, Leno Out at a Diminished Tonight Show

Leno is still number one in his time slot. But when he leaves Tonight, he'll leave an institution smaller and less relevant than when he found it.

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Andrew Eccles / NBC / AP

Jay Leno, left, and Jimmy Fallon, right.

In its statement today making official the fait accompli it at first denied—that Jimmy Fallon will take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno next year—NBC noted that this was not the first time it unseated a first-place late-night host. Said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, “We are purposefully making this change when Jay is #1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was #1.”

True enough. Hey, fun fact: NBC once replaced another Tonight host when he was #1! Fella by the name of Jay Leno! As I wrote a couple weeks ago as this deal was coming together, there is an awful lot reminiscent of when NBC briefly ousted Leno in 2009–10 for Conan O’Brien (a name never mentioned in today’s press release), from the personnel to the motivations to the overtones of generational warfare.

And the parallels kept coming today. Jay, we are being assured, is on board with the change. His statement: “Congratulations Jimmy.  I hope you’re as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you’re the old guy. If you need me, I’ll be at the garage.”

Sounds like all’s peaceful in Burbank! Except [rewinding noise] here’s Jay Leno in 2004, when NBC announced the handover to O’Brien in five years: “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised my wife Mavis I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.” Come 2009, it was O’Brien who ended up on the menu.

(One more item for your NBC-Statement-Bingo card: the network believes the Winter Olympics will be a great launchpad for Fallon, a statement it has made for every one of its disappointing post-Olympics seasons for the past decade and more.)

Well, who knows? As I wrote before, things could well be different this time. Jay could have fewer options to jump networks and threaten NBC. Fallon could be a better fit for 11:35. Or, with the rise of Jimmy Kimmel, the youth-demographic argument may just be more compelling today. Maybe things really are happier now: Leno and Fallon sang that duet, after all!And even if the video was pure PR, it was surprisingly sentimental, depicting Leno as finally resigned to one last good night.

(Another unknown: who will take over Fallon’s gig on Late Night. The buzz is around Seth Meyers, a funny guy but probably the least-different choice NBC could make short of just giving Fallon Tonight and expanding it to two hours.)

What we do know is that when Leno leaves Tonight—for another few months or forever this time—he’ll leave the institution smaller than when he found it. If Tonight is still the biggest show in late night, its overall ratings are much smaller amid a vaster array of entertainment choices: Comedy Central, Adult Swim, Kimmel and—most important—whatever’s recorded on your DVR.

That’s mostly the fault of time, technology and a changing TV business; we don’t share anything as universally as in the three-channel heyday of Carson. But even in proportion to its ratings Tonight is not the kind of influence in the cultural conversation that it once was. (The exception, of course, being when NBC dumps hosts of the Tonight Show.) You can’t measure politicians’ fortunes anymore by how they’re being joked about on Tonight, not when there are so many other forums for mockery; the more pointed, substantive satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, even with smaller audiences, has more public reverberation than Leno’s go-along-get-along humor. And while Fallon’s a nice guy and busts a great rap, he’s not likely to change that.

The Tonight Show is still relatively popular, and it can still make NBC a lot of money (but on a much-tighter budget, another factor here). But it’s no longer the kind of unifying mass entertainment that, when I interviewed him in 2009, Leno said he got into TV to do: “That’s what TV is to me, a gathering place.”

Most everything I know about Jay Leno says he will want to find another gig on TV, but if there’s one thing that might really send him into retirement this time, it could be that change. Maybe the only gathering place now left for Jay Leno really is his garage.