In what appears to have been as amicable an arrangement as show-business politics permits, NBC has announced that, beginning next February, comic Jimmy Fallon will succeed comic Jay Leno as host of the fabled The Tonight Show.
The announcement confirmed what media monitors have been whispering for weeks: that Fallon, 38 – since 2009, host of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon – was NBC's choice to inherit one of television's most important pulpits.
At the same time, the network announced that coincident with the change – scheduled to follow NBC's coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics – the show will make a transcontinental leap from its current base in Burbank, Calif., to its original home, 30 Rock, in New York.
Torontonian Lorne Michaels, long-time executive producer of Saturday Night Live, will take on the same responsibilities for The Tonight Show, replacing veteran Debbie Vickers. Michaels is thought to have played a backstage role in effecting the smooth transition of celebrity power.
Indeed, the surprise element was Leno's cheerful acquiescence to the transition.
His estimated $15-million-a-year contract does not formally expire until September, 2014. As he has for nearly his entire 20-year run, he continues to preside over the time slot's No. 1 rated show, particularly in the key 18-49-year-old demographic.
And in his nightly opening monologue, he has mercilessly skewered his NBC overlords for poor decision-making. On Tuesday, he noted that two prime-time shows, The Voice and Revolution, had moved the network into the No. 2 position. "You know what that means? Between Easter and Passover, this is truly the season of miracles. We're No. 2!"
But contrary to how he reacted in 2009, when NBC replaced him for eight months with Conan O'Brien, Leno appeared on Monday night to telegraph his willingness to pass his show's hallowed torch to Fallon in a satiric video using the song Tonight from West Side Story.
"The main difference between this and the other time is I'm part of the process," Leno, 62, told The New York Times on Wednesday. "The last time the decision was made without me. I came into work one day and – you're out." This time, he said, "there really aren't any complications like there were the last time. This time, it feels right."
In a statement of congratulations to Fallon, Leno said: "I hope you're as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you're an old guy. If you need me, I'll be at the garage," a reference to the vast car and motorcycle collection that is said to be his greatest passion, after joke-telling.
In response, Fallon said, "I'm really excited to host a show that starts today instead of tomorrow."
Making the succession seamless is a strategic priority for NBC, a network that has been struggling on a number of fronts. In the age of increasingly fierce competition for eyeballs, The Tonight Show is a crown jewel, thought to earn in excess of $200-million annually in advertising revenue. Last week, it was reported that the show hit a seven-week high in total viewers (3.5 million), compared with three million for the Letterman show on CBS and 2.6 million for Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.
In acting now to anoint Fallon, an alumnus of Michaels' long-running SNL comedy team, NBC has signalled its intention to pursue a younger audience and, perhaps, ensure that a rival network did not entice him away to compete directly with Leno. Fallon's Late Night contract was due to expire in 2015.
According to the Times, NBC Universal chief executive officer Steve Burke offered Leno the chance to see out his own contract, but he declined. It was not immediately known what severance NBC would have to pay Leno for terminating his contract eight months early.