NBC executives are reportedly discussing a “Tonight Show” succession plan that would have Jimmy Fallon taking over the show from Jay Leno in summer 2014.
The story — on the Hollywood Reporter Web site here — cites “two high-level industry sources” who are unnamed as saying “NBC is moving toward a May  announcement that the 2013-14 television season will be the last for Leno as host” of “The Tonight Show.”
The scenario has Fallon, 38, taking over the show from Leno, 62, in summer 2014 for a so-called “soft” launch, with Fallon’s “official” start as host scheduled for September 2014 at the outset of the 2014-15 TV season (more on this “soft launch” business below).
To its credit, the story has NBC denying the scenario in the second sentence. Nevertheless, THR apparently had enough confidence in its “industry” sources that it went ahead with the story anyway. Later in the story, an unnamed “rep” for Leno (Jay does retain an outside press representative who does not work for NBC) characterized the story as a “rumor.” The rep declined to comment.
Our take: Despite NBC’s denial, we feel this story rings true. It’s not the first time that a story has come out that Leno would relinquish “The Tonight Show” (voluntarily or otherwise) in 2014. It’s a scenario we’ve all felt would happen eventually, for the simplest of reasons: Money.
“The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” isn’t making the money it used to, despite the fact that it still leads David Letterman’s “Late Show” and 11:35 p.m. newcomer “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in overall viewership. The problem is, younger viewers are flocking to Kimmel (who’s 45) and abandoning Dave and Jay in ever-increasing numbers since Kimmel moved into the earlier time period on ABC in January. It’s in those younger demographics — primarily adults 18-49 — that NBC makes the bulk of its money on commercial time these days (or at least tries to). And as soon as Kimmel came into the picture at 11:35 (eastern time), the writing’s been on the wall for Leno.
So, by fall 2014, we may have a 39-year-old (Fallon) competing with a 46-year-old (Kimmel) and a 67-year-old (Letterman). We would expect that, while CBS may allow Letterman to stay on long enough to outlast Leno, it’s just a matter of time until CBS forms its own plan for Letterman’s retirement.
On this “soft launch” thing: In the TV business, a “soft launch” is a scheme by which a network — in this case NBC — will try and convince everyone, including viewers and the media, that they shouldn’t pay too close attention to those summer “Tonight” shows because NBC won’t be promoting them as heavily as they would the autumn shows. In other words, what NBC really wants is for the media to hold off on its critiques of Fallon until the “official” shows start airing in the fall. However, NBC would be wrong to expect this. Instead, the media will treat Fallon’s assumption of the “Tonight Show” throne as huge news, no matter when it takes place.
Though the THR story doesn’t go into such details, we assume that “The Tonight Show” will remain in Los Angeles, which means Fallon will have to move there from New York, which shouldn’t be a problem for him. Then, of course, NBC will have to find a new host for “Late Night.”
And, while we’re kind of getting ahead of ourselves here, our bet is that producer Lorne Michaels will tap a “Saturday Night Live” personality for that job — someone like Seth Meyers, perhaps.