It is written in the late-night history books that Jay Leno made the Tonight Show his own on July 10, 1995, when he asked recent prostitute shopper Hugh Grant, "What the hell were you thinking?" It became an iconic line that pops up in every Leno analysis, and today it applies yet again – this time as a question posed to the NBCUniversal executives who apparently are intent on showing Leno the door (again), this time to make room for Jimmy Fallon, who will bring the show back to New York City. Industry sources quoted by The Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times surmised that the network was making the move because, after Jimmy Kimmel's recent move to 11:35 p.m., if NBC didn’t get their Jimmy on earlier, ABC would control late-night for the next hundred years. Sounds reasonable, and if you're one of the many Leno haters out there, you've probably spent the afternoon doing a happy dance: Ding-dong, the Chin is dead! But let's leave aside emotion and Conan vengeance for a moment. As much as NBC execs might think they're being forward-thinkers by putting in place the next-gen Tonight Show host, there's lots of evidence to suggest this is the second time the network will live to regret a decision to oust Jay Leno.
First, let's get this out of the way: The argument in favor of keeping Jay at 11:35 has nothing to do with whether or not Fallon would make a good successor. Anyone who saw his five shows with Justin Timberlake last week knows that the man has grown into a confident, appealing, and very, very funny host. Being able to Slow Jam the News before midnight would be a very good thing indeed. The argument against Fallon-for-Leno has nothing to do with quality – and everything to do with stability. If you hadn't noticed, it's been an awful season for new shows in prime time, with only three or four new shows drawing respectable numbers. But amidst all the new-show rubble, what's been fascinating to watch is how some of the oldest shows on TV have become more powerful as of late: CBS's The Big Bang Theory and ABC's The Bachelor are actually adding audience (even as most shows are bleeding viewers); NBC's Biggest Loser and The Office have been the network's top-rated shows in recent weeks; Fox's ancient animated comedies on Sunday are off a bit but still pull more young adults that much newer shows.
What's more, TV industry insiders say they're seeing some anecdotal evidence suggesting that viewers are more likely to watch familiar shows live or on the same night they air than they are newer shows, since people have established viewing patterns around legacy series. Leno may not be sexy and he might not be critically beloved, but he has an incredibly loyal audience. NBC has been in free fall in prime time since January, but Leno has not only held steady, but actually increased his lead over long-time rival David Letterman. During the February sweeps, for example, Leno's margin of victory over Dave among adults under 50 was 8 percent; in February 2012, it was only 2 percent. Leno's ratings are down, but so are Dave's, and so is virtually everything in prime time. What's key is that Leno's lead over his rivals, including the buzzier Kimmel, is as solid as his chin.
There's a temptation to think that Fallon, who's younger and hipper, would automatically boost NBC's numbers. But that's what NBC thought would happen when Conan replaced Jay. It didn't. Back in 2004, when Conan's move to 11:35 was announced, I was very much in favor of a changing of the guard. I actually think former NBC chief Jeff Zucker was smart to lock Conan in years ahead of time and to attempt a transition well before David Letterman considered retiring. The way Zucker then panicked and pulled the rug out from under Conan when Zucker's let's-put-Jay-in-prime-time plan flopped was despicable, but the fact is, ratings did drop soon after Conan took over. I'd like to think that, had Zucker been patient, O'Brien would have stabilized and all would have been well. (Fun fact: NBC was drawing bigger ratings with Conan in early 2010 than they are now with Leno.) Unfortunately, we'll never know, but here's what does seem likely: The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon will very likely pull in lower ratings than the current version.
For one thing, so far Kimmel hasn't actually improved ABC's late-night standing all that much, despite tons of hype and some great episodes (such as Matt Damon's brilliantly executed takeover of the show). Yes, Jimmy Kimmel Live is drawing more viewers than it did at midnight because of its earlier slot. But when Nightline aired in the same time period last year, ABC was able to accurately claim it had the top-rated show in late-night, even with younger viewers (in part because the show ended earlier than its rivals). But in the recent February sweeps, Jimmy Kimmel Live actually ranked third in the 11:35–12:35 a.m. time slot. This isn't an indictment of Kimmel, but a reflection of both the loyalty of Leno and Letterman fans, and the fact that younger viewers have already abandoned networks for other late-night options. While we in the media love to play up the whole Jay-Dave-Jimmy "late-night war," the fact is that the broadcast networks are already losing the war for younger viewers. Adult Swim, with its low-budget schedule of animation and quirkiness, regularly draws more viewers under 50 than the networks do. Comedy Central's The Daily Show often gets the same or bigger numbers than Jay, Dave, and Kimmel, albeit a half-hour earlier. Instead of automatically bringing in a ton of new, younger viewers with Fallon, what NBC might actually end up doing is inviting the very, very loyal core of Leno viewers to try something new — like maybe that shiny young Kimmel fellow. Or that cranky Dave guy they've never been fond of, but, hey, he's old and familiar and why don't we give him another chance, Doris. Or, maybe that backlog of prime-time shows eating up space on the DVR.
The motto for broadcast television executives in today’s world of overall declining ratings should be that old saw “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” One of the reasons why CBS is the No. 1 network with viewers of all ages and young viewers is because they don't mess with success unless they have to. Rules of Engagement has zero buzz and only does well when it's behind a hit show, but it has a faithful audience and people like it. Likewise, Two and a Half Men costs lots and lots of money and nobody really likes Ashton Kutcher … except for the 14 million people who watch the show each week. So even though producer Warner Bros. will make CBS pay through the nose, guess what's going to be back on CBS next fall? And Letterman, while often trailing Leno, is still relatively stable, as network TV goes. So while it's possible David Letterman could announce his retirement tomorrow, if he does so, it'll be because he wants out: Anytime I've tried to get Eye execs to reveal their game plan for a post-Dave world, all they've said is, in essence, “Letterman has the job as long as he wants it.”
The point is, broadcast TV as we've known it is dying fast, but until it completely croaks, it makes sense to hold on to what works as long as you can. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno may not be beloved, and Leno himself may be considered a black-hat for plotting against Dave and then Conan, but getting rid of one of the only shows on NBC that actually wins its time slot is pretty much the definition of … well, maybe not insanity, but certainly of arrogance. Plus, switching Tonight hosts will necessitate a huge marketing and publicity push, which will take away resources (and executive attention) from where it’s sorely needed: its flat-lining prime-time schedule. (Were you aware that Monday's season finale of the NBC drama Deception ranked seventh in its time slot, losing not only to broadcast networks but also cable fare on MTV, ESPN, A&E, and USA? The more you know!)
Of course, the decision to upturn the one time slot that is holding steady comes from the same network that chose to save a few dollars by limiting the episode order for Parenthood and has yet to renew it for next season even though the show has higher demo ratings than most things on the network and is actually still adding audience. It's quite possible that NBC's motivating factor for ditching Leno next year isn't a desire to win the future, but rather to save some dough. Late-night insiders I've spoken with over the last few weeks say that, even after the massive budget cuts NBC imposed on Leno last summer, his show is still incredibly expensive and brings in far less ad revenue than it used to. Conan's Tonight Show cost far less to produce than Jay's does, and it's very likely Fallon's will cost even less. NBC may be betting that it can draw the same audience for much less money, thus bumping up profits. If Fallon ends up bleeding viewers versus Jay, however, that theory may not work out.
Assuming nothing changes, the Leno-Fallon transition could happen as early as next year. NBC's mind may be made up. But if the ink is not yet dry, perhaps Peacock executives might consider another, possibly less risky option. Instead of shaking up late night, why not experiment in prime time with an idea that might have been just a few years ahead of its time. Zucker got destroyed for putting a talk show in prime time, but the fact is, The Jay Leno Show was drawing better numbers than Smash, and it cost a whole lot less. Leno wasn't ready for prime time, in part because he still wanted to be on Tonight and in part because he had zero desire to depart from his time-tested formula. The show looked cheap and small. But instead of stripping Leno five nights a week, what if NBC decided to put Fallon on at 10 p.m.? His week of shows with Timberlake was more entertaining than anything else NBC aired last week (except Parks and Recreation, of course). And Fallon and his team are constantly coming up with viral videos, sketches, and other new ways of putting on a fun show. There's no reason NBC would have to commit to a massive time-slot switch upfront: Why not just give Fallon an eight-week test at ten o'clock this summer, with repeats airing in his normal late-night slot? There will be plenty of superstars looking to hype their summer blockbusters or concert tours; maybe they could stick around for a week of shows like Timberlake. If it flops, Fallon's audience will still love him in late-night. And if it works, NBC's avoided a massive headache while possibly going a long way toward solving its prime-time woes. It's inevitable that Jay Leno will leave The Tonight Show, and it's logical that Jimmy Fallon replaces him. But NBC needs to delay that eventuality for as long as it can while it first works to fix its much, much bigger problems.