Jay Leno is leaving The Tonight Show this week to be replaced by Jimmy Fallon after the Olympics. After screwing up the Jay/Conan transition in 2009, NBC may actually get it right this time. The earlier switch was hastily arranged in 2004 when the network became aware that Conan was being wooed by competitors.
This month’s changeover was planned better. When management has time to consider ratings, research, revenues, salaries, production costs (along with advertiser and affiliate input), it’s easier to make the right moves.
The key to a more successful change this time, I believe, is Fallon’s likability. Conan is hip and funny but is not as personally engaging as is Fallon. Some older viewers who loved Jay had a hard time warming up to Conan. Fallon, even going back to his Saturday Night Live days, has always warmer and friendlier than Conan.
Fallon also possesses skills beyond delivering a monologue and interviewing guests. He can sing, play guitar and act. Jay’s older viewers will, I believe, embrace Fallon.
Surveying the late night landscape, Fallon matches up well against ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel who is delivering consistently good shows with fresh, clever, funny material. David Letterman is still a master at his craft, but much of his content is becoming stale. The Daily Show and Colbert are well written and hilarious. And Conan rolls on at TBS.
So what becomes of Jay Leno now? He’ll continue to make big money doing standup gigs. He should disappear from TV for a year or so. He could return doing occasional variety specials formatted like the old Bob Hope specials, heavy on topical jokes within a monologue, plus a few skits and musical numbers.
On the PR front, Leno and NBC have handled this changeover better than the previous one. The network damaged Conan’s chances for success in ’09 by keeping Leno around in that primetime experiment. And Leno, undeservedly, was made to be the villain after affiliates screamed for Jay’s return to The Tonight Show and Conan bolted.
Leno seems sincere in his recent complimentary remarks about Jimmy Fallon. He claims he understands the network’s rationalization for making the move. (He also made it clear that he would like to keep working.) NBC was gracious enough to thank Jay in a full-page ad in yesterday’s New York Times. Additionally, moving The Tonight Show from Burbank to New York has generated great buzz.
Change is inevitable. No one is indispensible. Stay tuned. More to come.
One more thing: The best book every written about the way broadcast management regards talent is The Late Shift by Bill Carter. It tells the story of Jay Leno’s ascent to The Tonight Show throne, which David Letterman had thought he would inherit. Published 20 years ago, it still has relevance for those who work in media or are interested media observers.