NBC will change the old guard by putting Jimmy Fallon into The Tonight Show host chair when Jay Leno officially retires next February – but is the new kid up to the challenge?
According to The New York Times, NBC will announce its plans later today to install Fallon as The Tonight Show's sixth host at the conclusion of the network's coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia. NBC's gameplan will also include moving The Tonight Show from its longtime home in Burbank, Calif., to its originating location of New York.
The NBC announcement comes following weeks of speculation about imminent changes on the talk show and reports of behind-the-scenes friction between Leno and NBC. Strained relations between the two parties reach back to Leno's first departure from the venerable Tonight Show franchise in 2009 and the subsequent rocky transition to Conan O'Brien in the host chair. O'Brien departed the network following seven months and Leno eventually resumed the host role.
But that was then and this is now. "The main difference between this and the other is I'm part of the process," said Leno in a recent interview with The New York Times. "The last time the decision was made without me. I came into work one day and – you're out."
And this time: "There aren't really any complications like there were the last time," said Leno, who took over The Tonight Show reins from Johnny Carson in 1992. "This time it feels right."
Leno will be 64 when he signs off from The Tonight Show next February, while incoming host Fallon will be 39.
A native New Yorker and former cast member of Saturday Night Live, Fallon still has two years remaining on his NBC contract for his own late-night show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In keeping with his longstanding nice-guy reputation, Fallon has kept out of the rampant press speculation about him taking over from Leno. "I just kind of wanted to keep doing my job well," he told a Times reporter.
In fact, Fallon claims to have spoken frequently with Leno in recent weeks, just to make sure the two remain on friendly terms. "I have nothing but respect for Jay," he told The Times. "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have a show to be taking over."
No details of Fallon's new contract have been released, but his current contract with NBC is rumoured to be in the $5-million per annum neighbourhood. His new deal is projected to be at least triple that amount, so what is NBC getting for its money?
Off the top, NBC will get a savvy social-media player. Since launching Late Night in March, 2009, Fallon was the first talk-show host to take social media seriously. When Fallon hosted the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2010, he was the first Emmy host to tweet live throughout the broadcast.
On Late Night, Fallon has launched a steady stream of Twitter hashtags and viral-video mashups, and has earned praise for initiating LNJF, a mobile app compiling clips from the show, including his popular Thank You Notes segments.
Fallon is also known for incorporating current technology directly into Late Night, often through the use of Skype or game systems like Xbox 360 during the broadcast.
In American media circles, the call to crown a new king (or queen) of late-night has gathered steam lately in the wake of persistent rumours that David Letterman, 65, will retire from his CBS talk show when his contract expires next year.
With Fallon, The Tonight Show suddenly has a hipper, social-media-cool host in pursuit of a younger viewing demographic, and the changeover can't happen fast enough for NBC.
According to Leno, he was recently contacted by senior NBC management to assure him that he could stay to the official end of his contract in September, 2014. Leno told The New York Times that he told the executive, "I appreciate that, but it's not really necessary. And I don't want to make it harder for Jimmy. I want to hand off something that's going to make it easier."