Late Night Shakeup: Round 3

What started as a rumor has recently been proven to be true. Jay Leno’s contract will expire next year and NBC wants Jimmy Fallon to replace him by the fall of 2014. The Peacock’s purpose for the change this time around is to compete with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who recently moved up to the same 11:35 time slot as “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” after starting at 12:05 for nearly a decade. Although Leno is still number one in both his time slot and in the 18-49 demographic, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” has been doing surprisingly well. The executives at NBC feel Fallon will be a safer to bet to give Kimmel serious competition. The thought of Fallon being promoted to “The Tonight Show” after hosting “Late Night” for only four years feels more contrived than Katie Holmes’ acting. I feel Fallon hasn’t earned his right to move up because both Conan and Letterman hosted that same 12:35 show for over a decade before they moved up an hour.

However, part of me wants this change to happen because, most likely, it will not end well. History tends to repeat itself, and so far the first two hosts of “Late Night” have been fucked over by NBC in some way. I’m looking forward to hearing what David Letterman has to say about it. He was hilarious throughout the whole tribulation three years ago when Conan O’Brien decided to step down from hosting “The Tonight Show” instead of accepting NBC’s idiotic idea of pushing his show back to 12:05 to make room for a Leno half-hour show in his former time slot. It was funny to see how bitter Letterman still is about not getting The Tonight Show and how he still holds a grudge towards Leno and NBC. I don’t blame him. I’d still hold a grudge too. Leno certainly didn’t win “The Tonight Show” because he’s more talented than Letterman. He mainly got it because he had a pushy, manipulative manager named Helen Kushnick who helped him get it. Just read Bill Carter’s book The Late Shift to find out more about that transition from hell when Johnny Carson retired in 1992.

New York Times writer Bill Carter is the one who initially reported that NBC is building a new studio in Rockefeller Center, bringing “The Tonight Show” franchise back to New York City for the first time since the 70s. The main reasons they want to keep him there instead of moving him to LA is because his announcer Steve Higgins is a writer and producer on “Saturday Night Live” and his house band, The Roots, are based out of Philadelphia and would obviously not be able to commute back and forth like they do now. If anyone can be trusted with information about this situation, it’s definitely Bill Carter.

He also wrote another great book called The War for Late Night about what happened three years ago. During that time, between Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Howard Stern, the three of them were tearing Leno apart. Jimmy Kimmel dressing up like Leno and impersonating him for an entire episode was classic and caused me and other Conan fans to have a greater amount of respect for him. My favorite thing Letterman did was when he responded to Leno’s “state of the network speech” where he said that people shouldn’t blame Conan for what was going on, to which Letterman retorted, “No one IS blaming Conan.”

What NBC executives should’ve learned from the first time this happened over two decades ago was that no matter how badly they wanted to, there was no way they’d be able to keep both guys and keep them both happy. Only one of them was going to get The Tonight Show. NBC wanted to keep Letterman after giving Jay “The Tonight Show,” but he didn’t want to stay there so he left and started his own show on CBS. Unfortunately for Conan, what would’ve worked out the best for everyone in the long run is for NBC to have just told Conan they weren’t ready to get rid of Jay. Conan would’ve been disappointed, but he would’ve understood and just gone to Fox or something. It’s understandable that Conan wanted to move up because he had earned his right to do so after hosting “Late Night” for over a decade. It’s also understandable that NBC wanted to keep both of them, but they should have known it wouldn’t have been worth trying. They knew Jay didn’t want to leave The Tonight Show and the 10 pm “Jay Leno Show” should’ve seemed like a bad idea from the start because it would be impossible to compete with dramas on other networks. They should have been able to predict that it would be a bad lead-in for Conan. It’s undeniably one of the main factors that led to his low ratings.

When NBC first broke the news to Leno in 2004 that they were going to give the show to Conan in five years, he was understandably upset. His response was that, because he was still number one in the ratings, they should’ve waited until Letterman started surpassing him. That makes no sense to me. I’d much rather go out while I’m still on top instead of wait until I fall to number two. Many athletes elect to retire while they’re still doing well, such as Mariano Rivera making this coming season his last so he can make up for the fact that he spent the entire last season on the disabled list. Before that happened, he was showing practically no signs of his age. A quarterback like Brett Favre should not object when he’s told to step down while still at the top of his game because it’s time to bring in someone younger who can get his chance to take over before Favre has a chance to see his skills diminish.

Rosie O’Donnell put it nicely when she was a guest on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” during this debacle in 2010. She said that “The Tonight Show” is not Jay’s show, and she compared it to a bus that was around a very long time, and when they said to the driver “You’re done,” he should give back the keys and say “Thank you,” not flatten the tires for the next guy. He should’ve tried harder to get out of hosting the 10 pm show because he didn’t really want to do it anyway. And he should’ve realized there was no way Conan would be ok with Jay getting a half hour show after the first show was cancelled. I’m sure he would never have agreed to do that if NBC had tried to bring Johnny Carson back to his old time slot when Jay first started hosting in 1992. His ratings were low when he first started, so they would have been justified to. He was even losing to Letterman for about two years. The turning point didn’t come until 1995 when Hugh Grant was a guest on his show after being arrested with a prostitute. The controversy caused his ratings to finally beat Dave’s, and he remained in first place ever since. I still cannot figure out why.

Here’s to hoping that NBC is dumb enough to make a bad decision for a third time so we can all listen to Letterman’s commentary for a few weeks. For Jimmy Fallon’s sake, let’s hope he’s smart enough not to take it. He probably still has time to renege on his decision. I know I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near The Tonight Show if I were him, no matter how much money they offered me. At least not until Jay Leno keeled over. Then I’d consider it. I’m sure even Conan feels that the $40 million exit deal he received wasn’t worth the agony he had to go through to get it.

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