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Has NBC learned transition lessons?

Thursday - 4/4/2013, 3:44pm  ET

This Oct. 24, 2012 photo released by NBC shows Jay Leno, host of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," on the set in Burbank, Calif. NBC announced Wednesday, April 3, 2013 that Jimmy Fallon is replacing Jay Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show" in spring 2014. (AP Photo/NBC, Paul Drinkwater)

DAVID BAUDER
AP Television Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- NBC's recent personnel transition in morning television was a disaster. Executives hope their luck is better late at night, and they have a year to try and make it a smooth handoff from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon at the "Tonight" show.

The network announced Wednesday what has been rumored for the past several weeks: Leno will leave the job he's had most of the time since 1992, to be replaced by "Late Night" host Fallon. The late-night franchise is also returning to its roots, leaving California for a New York studio.

The thinking is clear: Leno is 62, his hair graying. The eager Fallon is 38, looks younger, hangs with his ultra-hip house band the Roots and slow jams the news with President Obama.

All Leno does is consistently rank No. 1 in his field, a status not many people at NBC can claim these days.

The "Today" show was tops a year ago, too, or at least running neck-and-neck with ABC's "Good Morning America." Then the toppling of co-host Ann Curry spread a black cloud. Ratings tumbled, executives lost their jobs, Matt Lauer's popularity plummeted and "GMA" is now the most popular morning show.

Could history repeat itself at the same network?

"I'm sure the people at (corporate owner) Comcast and NBC are keeping their fingers crossed that it's not another public relations black eye," said Brad Adgate, analyst for Horizon Media.

NBC's hand was forced, to its perspective, by ABC when that network put Jimmy Kimmel in the time slot shared by Leno and CBS' David Letterman earlier this year. Young people are already seeking out other entertainment choices in late-night, and NBC didn't want ABC to establish itself as the network with the young, hip host right after the local news.

"We are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was No. 1," said Steve Burke, chief executive officer of NBC Universal, in a statement. "Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent and this is his time."

Burke was not made available for an interview to discuss NBC's reasoning and whether the network applied any lessons from the Curry mess to its late-night switch.

The most pressing question is whether Leno's fans warm to Fallon, or if they use this as an opportunity to try something else. Leno's fans did not accept Conan O'Brien in 2009 when he took over "Tonight" for less than a year. Fallon's humor is broader than O'Brien's, and would seem a better fit.

Leno also presumably won't be around for a direct comparison this time. When O'Brien worked at "Tonight," Leno was in the midst of his failed prime-time experiment on NBC.

There's no telling whether fans of Leno will resent the network's treatment of the comic the way morning viewers took out their distaste for what happened to Curry on "Today." NBC is dislodging him from late-night for the second time; what did he do to deserve the door?

Viewers might also question the network's regard for them. Why is NBC taking my favorite comic away?

Letterman, while he's been no big fan of his rival Leno through the years, was already pushing this narrative on his own show Wednesday, taped shortly after NBC's announcement.

"How many times can a guy get pushed out of the job?" Letterman asked. "What's the matter with NBC? What's the matter with these guys? You know, honestly, what are they thinking?"

He congratulated Leno on his 'Tonight' tenure, "if in fact you're not coming back."

Both the New York Daily News and Post ran a front page picture of Leno driving a motorcycle with Fallon in the side car, his fist raised. The News added bundles of cash on Fallon's lap, with the headline: "Hit the road, Jay: Leno driven out of 'Tonight' by Fallon."

"It's difficult to give up a program that wins its time period by 33 percent, and Jay has always been a great friend to the affiliates," said John Dawson, general manager for five NBC affiliates in Kansas. "For that alone it will be hard to give him up. But I believe in Jimmy's ability to retain Jay's viewers and to bring his own unique audience to that time period."

NBC is timing the change for maximum impact. It will happen around the Winter Olympics in Russia, which is expected to give the network a large prime-time audience that will be peppered with promos.

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