Somehow, another NBC late-night transition has turned into a public drama. And this time, the two hosts involved are not even feuding. The network has found itself in a groundswell of speculation surrounding The Tonight Show host Jay Leno and Late Night‘s Jimmy Fallon. The network is staying mum on its plans, but a few things appear settled: Fallon is poised to replace Leno on The Tonight Show. When he does, he is not expected to copy his predecessor Conan O’Brien’s cross-country move from New York to Los Angeles. I hear Fallon and his producers had been lobbying for staying put in New York. Fallon’s current studio is being renovated, which sources say was part of a planned refurbishing of 30 Rock, and it will likely house the future Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, marking the show’s return to the East Coast after more than four decades in Burbank. Leno’s current contract, which is up in September 2014, will likely be late-night host’s last one. In an interview with GQ, Late Night executive producer Lorne Michaels also hinted at the inevitability of Fallon’s anointment as new Tonight host. “I’m not allowed to say it — yet,” he said. “But I think there’s an inevitability to it,” He added: “He’s the closest to Carson that I’ve seen of this generation.”
With the players and the framework set, the biggest uncertainty in the transition appears to be the exact timing. There is speculation that NBC brass may have settled on an end date for Leno and that Leno and Fallon, who regularly chat on the phone, have discussed the issue in a call initiated by Fallon — though all sides are denying that there is a plan in place. For now, sources at NBC indicate that the network has no plans to announce Leno’s Tonight exit at NBC’s upfront presentation in May,though the rampant speculation may force their hand in the decision-making. An announcement of Leno’s retirement is tied with the introduction of Fallon as new Tonight host, something he has not been contracted for yet. I hear NBC has not started or is in very early stages of making Fallon’s deal for The Tonight Show.
Additionally, NBC is expected to give a final-season send-off for Leno, who continues to deliver for the network. Despite NBC’s bad shape in primetime — finishing fifth in the February sweep among adults 18-49 — and the buzz surrounding ABC’s 11:35 PM newcomer Jimmy Kimmel, Leno won the sweep decisively in both 18-49 and total viewers. And despite a series of jabs at NBC’s woes by Leno on The Tonight Show that led to emails of disapproval from NBC topper Bob Greenblatt, the two appear to be on good terms and are reportedly dining together this week. Also needed for a Tonight transition is a replacement for Fallon. While I hear potential candidates have been pitched (Howard Stern also recently threw his name in the ring), NBC executives are not taking official meetings yet. Of course, there are the potential internal candidates that had long been rumored about, like Saturday Night Live‘s Seth Meyers, who would follow in the footsteps of Fallon, also a former Weekend Update host; or E!’s Chelsea Handler.
As for Fallon, he tries not to get wrapped up in all the speculation. “It would be great, sure, I guess,” he told GQ about hosting Tonight. “I’d love it, but it’s not on my mind.”