Jay Leno. (By Justin Lubin, NBC)
Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
You know a network's struggling when even its problems feel like reruns.
After its 2010 Leno-Conan-back-to-Leno Tonight Show fiasco, it's almost inconceivable that NBC could bumble its way back into a similar situation - and yet here we are. If as-yet-unconfirmed (but not denied) reports are true, NBC is planning to push Jay Leno out of his Tonight job again and replace him with Jimmy Fallon by the fall of 2014 to stop ABC's Jimmy Kimmel from tying up the younger audience.
The move may never happen: The story was obviously leaked as a pre-emptive strike to humiliate NBC out of any such shift, a tactic that very well might work. Even so, the damage has been done, to NBC, to Leno, to The Tonight Show and to Fallon, who, despite his apparent innocence, is bound to be seen as a back-stabber/usurper by the loyalist members of Leno's audience. Which is still, by the way, late night's largest, even among younger viewers - making you wonder whether NBC has become so accustomed to problems, it's now inventing them where they don't exist.
The oddest part of this now-public debate is that it is, indeed, public. After all, this isn't 1992, when The Tonight Show held the center of the pop-culture world and the battle between Leno and David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson consumed the media. In this splintered TV universe, where younger viewers are as prone to watch Comedy Central or Adult Swim as Tonight, a transition could have passed by without much fuss, had it been handled well. But then, given NBC's constant incompetence with Today and Tonight staffing issues, why would anyone think the network was going to handle this well?
To be sure, it's not always easy to feel sympathy for Leno. Under his Wonder-Bread-bland watch, The Tonight Show has gone from comic launchpad to cultural irrelevance, in large part because Leno has been too focused on protecting his own career to use the platform to help anyone else's.
But we're a nation of workers, and many of those workers are likely to side with the guy who has done everything his company has asked of him - including, in this case, winning his time slot - only to be rewarded with a shove in the back. He doesn't deserve to hold the job forever. He does deserve a more graceful exit.
Yet instead, NBC stumbles into another public relations fiasco, and for Fallon, who draws fewer viewers than O'Brien did when he hosted Late Night and loses about the same percentage of Tonight Show viewers. So why would NBC think he'd do better in that slot than O'Brien when his ratings are lower, his act is similarly pitched toward the later slot's smaller crowd and lower expectations, and his experience and abilities are less?
Fallon comes across as incredibly personable, and he shines in the show's musical-spoof moments. But he still seems ill at ease when it comes to actually interviewing guests or pulling off a monologue, and those remain the primary tasks of a Tonight Show host. Unless, of course, NBC decides it doesn't want interviews or monologues - particularly if the host might, horror of horrors, use one to poke fun at the network's ratings woes - and changes the format entirely.
Given everything else NBC has done with The Tonight Show this decade, would you really be surprised?