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Commentary: ‘Tonight Show,’ ‘Late Night’ shuffle might oust Leno again

Courtesy of MCT

Rumors have been swirling over the last few weeks that NBC is planning to remove Jay Leno from his hosting duties on “The Tonight Show” and promote the host of “Late Night” to the coveted 11:35 p.m. time slot.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You might recall that in the summer of 2009, NBC began a horribly ill-fated plan, which revolved around Conan O’Brien, then the host of “Late Night,” succeeding Jay Leno as the host of “The Tonight Show.” NBC, however, decided it wouldn’t like to see Leno end up on a rival network, and so gave him a new talk show, “The Jay Leno Show” at the unprecedented 10 p.m. time slot. “Late Night” was then taken over by “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Jimmy Fallon. This proved to be an utter failure, as “The Jay Leno Show” absolutely bombed in the ratings, creating a domino effect that led to O’Brien and Fallon also seeing poor ratings.

NBC, realizing this format was not going to work, decided to bump Leno’s new show to 11:35 p.m., bumping O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m. After about eight months as the host, O’Brien decided this was not suitable, as it would also bump Fallon and Carson Daly’s “Last Call” later into the night. O’Brien opted to leave NBC, and was eventually hired by TBS, where he still hosts his own late night show, “Conan.” 

Flash-forward a few years. There have been a lot of reports recently that NBC is fed up with Leno, and Leno has had enough with NBC. The network wants Leno out immediately in an attempt to attract a younger audience for the 11:35 p.m. time slot, but Leno, under contract for another year, is choosing to keep his show until his contract runs out. He feels he has no reason to turn down the money still owed to him, does not want to retire before his longtime rival David Letterman and probably doesn’t mind sticking it to NBC.

The plan set in place at the moment is for Fallon to move up and be Leno’s successor. Although this sounds eerily similar to what happened to O’Brien, Fallon probably does not need to worry about ending up on a cable network after a few months. In 2009, NBC still coveted Leno enough to give him a new show rather than see him go to another network. When Leno’s contract runs up this time, it is very unlikely that NBC has any problem saying goodbye to the man who has been hosting for the network since Johnny Carson retired in 1992.

Besides the intrigue of the ugly separation between these titans of the late night talk circuit, the same question can be brought up as when O’Brien took over “The Tonight Show:” who is taking over “Late Night?”

Several big names have come up in this discussion, though there is no way of knowing how legitimate any of these rumors are. 

The leading candidate at the moment appears to be “SNL” Weekend Update host and head writer Seth Meyers. Meyers, who has been on “SNL” since 2001, already has a strong relationship with NBC and is popular based on his work on the show.

Other big names have also come up many times in recent weeks. Perhaps the biggest name is “The King of All Media” and current “America’s Got Talent” judge Howard Stern. Stern would certainly not fit into the belief that NBC is looking for younger, up-and-coming names, but he carries enough influence and a following that he would surely attract larger ratings.

Really, any popular, somewhat-young comedian has and will be rumored as a replacement candidate. Some of these names include Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Joel McHale and Chelsea Handler.

Two more names that probably come to mind pretty quickly, but are not likely to be a possibility, are Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart. 

Seinfeld would be one of the more expensive routes NBC could go, and, as his decreased workload since “Seinfeld” ended in 1998 suggests he probably does not want to take on the time commitment of having a nighttime show.

Stewart is an ideal choice in many eyes, but has a great thing going with “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and does not see his contract expire until 2015, although he recently announced he is taking a 12-week hiatus from the show to direct a movie. Don’t rule him out as a replacement for Letterman when Dave decides to retire, though.

In my opinion, these late-night wars are an absolute mess, as they were last time. Fallon has really come into his own as a talk show host and should do a fine job taking over for Leno. It also sets up an interesting competition at the same time slot with ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” NBC has plenty of options for “Late Night” but will probably end up not going with one of the huge names, similarly to when NBC hired Fallon in 2009. 

And as for Leno, it’s hard to be too sympathetic that he is being pushed out after the way he and NBC shafted O’Brien in 2010. I doubt we have seen the last of Leno as a talk show host, and you can probably expect to see him on Fox in a couple of years. But his reputation has taken a permanent hit, and NBC, though maybe not conducting itself in the best manner, is right to move on.

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