Should NBC dump Jay Leno for Jimmy Fallon?

The rumor mill has Leno out sometime next year. Could young Fallon succeed where Conan O'Brien failed?

At the Golden Globes in January, Leno and Fallon joked about a possible changing of the guard.
(Image credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

First, let's go over why NBC should think hard about replacing late-night talk show host Jay Leno with later-night host Jimmy Fallon next year: Leno is winning. After muscling his way back into the 11:35 pm slot in 2010 — and, in one of the most poorly managed breakups in TV history, pushing out Conan O'Brien, the man who replaced him — Leno is beating not only longtime CBS arch-rival David Letterman in the ratings but also young upstart Jimmy Kimmel, who just moved up to late-night prime time on ABC. Late-night shows aren't easy, Leno has a shtick that works, and as the Conan debacle seemed to prove, Leno viewers are loyal to the man and not the Peacock network. (Watch Leno and Fallon "joke" about a possible transition at this year's Golden Globes, below.)

For what it's worth, NBC says the report in The Hollywood Reporter — that, according to two unidentified sources, the network will bump Fallon up when Leno's contract expires in mid-2014 — is "categorically untrue." Leno's team says it doesn't respond to rumors. The Hollywood Reporter's sources say the reason for the switch is essentially winning the future: While Leno is regularly beating his rivals in the raw numbers, Kimmel is "competitive" among the coveted 18-to-49 age cohort, and "the more time Jimmy Kimmel is in that slot, the more the young audience goes that way, the harder it is for [Fallon] to keep that audience."

The reaction to this potential changing of the guard seems to fit into two camps: "Yes, please!" and "Oh no, not this again!" The similarities to the dumping-Leno-for-Conan fiasco are inescapable, "but this time, the ditching makes eminent sense," says David Zurawik in The Baltimore Sun. Leno "is yesterday — and then some," while "Fallon has buzz, edge, and young viewers." Leno may be winning overall, for now, but "you can't sell overall ratings the way you can sell the 18 to 49 or even 25-54 demographics." Even if Fallon doesn't beat Letterman, or even Kimmel, "what network wouldn't take a second or third place finish overall in late night with a comedian young people talk about online and on the radio in the morning?"

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What really makes Fallon so valuable — and separates him from, say, Conan O'Brien — is his keen cultural instinct. That's what great late-night success really comes down to: Plugging into the current of pop culture energy in the country. The great hosts, like Johnny Carson, when they were on a roll, could even occasionally drive the culture itself.... [Fallon creates] late-night buzz, and Leno will never have it. He's scripted, old-old-school: Joke, joke, yuk, yuk, thank you and sleep warm, folks. [Baltimore Sun]

The similarities between Conan and Fallon are pretty striking, and that's worrisome, says Joe Reid at Grantland. "But I suppose unless you're into the idea that Jay Leno should hold the position of Tonight Show host until he dies in office, like a Supreme Court justice or a pope (current events notwithstanding), NBC will have to move soon on a replacement for Leno." Well, why not Leno for life? says Brian Lowry at Variety. If NBC is even considering dumping Leno, here's the first thing it needs to do:

Issue the following statement: "We have no plans to replace Jay Leno until A) Jay decides to retire himself or B) some higher power retires him. Think of Jay as a dictator for life. If you haven't noticed, we have some other problems to deal with right now. And by the way, have you asked CBS about David Letterman? Because last we checked, he's a few years older than Jay."... There's the weirdness of the Leno-Letterman relationship, and the question of who will ultimately blink first. Installing your guy as dictator for life would shift the focus elsewhere. [Variety]

Besides, the whole rationale for retiring Leno is based on some pretty questionable premises, says Lowry. Kimmel is hot right now because he's a new guy in a late-night slot that revolves so infrequently, they literally "pick popes about as often." And there's certainly no guarantee for NBC that "Fallon will solve the challenge they faced when Conan O'Brien slid into the late-night slot." Instead of trying to sell the next young host to Leno's loyal fans, "frankly, it might be time for everyone in late-night to start pressuring the sales department to figure out how to sell the audience you have."

Leno has made pretty clear he's not the kind of guy who's going to go rest on his laurels. So unless NBC wants to again face the prospect of him turning up somewhere else (even if it's just AARP Network — or CNN), they had better be sure he's completely on board with any proposed "retirement." [Variety]

This is more than a changing of the guards for NBC — it's an existential decision, says John Doyle at Canada's Globe and Mail. NBC is getting destroyed by its network rivals, and even cable competitors, and getting rid of the widely hated Leno is a necessary first step to "avert a perceived complete slide toward oblivion." Yes, "securing the future of late-night should be a big part of the network's strategy" for revival, if not survival, but Fallon may not be ready for prime time, says Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter. The affable "Fallon tries very hard and has his own notable style, but he hasn't been laying the foundation for crossover — or at least broader — appeal that Kimmel has." Viral YouTube segments and great music "are hardly the trademark of the 11:35 pm slot, where the interview is still king." ABC's guy gets that, and it's one big reason "Kimmel is the future of late-night." CBS and NBC have to figure out their line of succession quick, because "that future has arrived."

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