"Congratulations, Jimmy. I hope you're as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you're the old guy," Jay Leno said to successor Fallon in a statement. "If you need me, I'll be at the garage."
(Photo: Photo illustration by Andrew Eccles, NBC)
It's a generational shift at an icon of late-night TV: NBC's Tonight Show anointed only its sixth host in its 59-year history.
Jimmy Fallon will take over for Jay Leno late next February, the network confirmed Wednesday, after Leno is ushered off the stage for the second time in his 22-year run.
With the handoff, expected just after a promotional push during NBC's Winter Olympics, Tonight will move back to Fallon's base in New York City from Burbank, Calif., its home for more than 30 years.
And the show is being placed in the hands of executive producer Lorne Michaels, who created Saturday Night Live and has shepherded projects featuring many of its stars, from 30 Rock to Fallon's current Late Night.
But wee-hours talk shows have diminished in stature and ratings, amid huge shifts in television viewing. Cable competitors have sprung up, and recorded shows compete with the nightly monologues. Instead, much of the cultural conversation about Tonight has revolved around who's in and who's out, rather than what's being said.
The show clings to its lead as late-night's most-watched, even as NBC struggles in prime time and Today has dropped to second place in the morning hours. But for the first time this winter, Comedy Central's The Colbert Report joined The Daily Show in beating Tonight among young-adult viewers.
And both make headlines far more frequently.
"More for performers than the audience, there is sort of an aura of the Tonight Show label," says Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media, as a destination for celebrities, politicians and other newsmakers, and - less frequently these days - musicians and comics. But among viewers, its image "has been shattered because of infighting over the last several years," he says.
That will be "very difficult" to repair, says Simon, but Fallon's boyish enthusiasm and natural skills as a performer could help. At 38, he's "the right age for it, someone you could see grow before your eyes," just as "Carson went from new kid on the block to elder statesman."
Why is NBC dropping Leno, who still leads the pack, seven months before his contract is up in September 2014?
"Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent, and this is his time," says NBC Universal chief Steve Burke in a statement, taking pains to praise Leno, who is 62 and expected to continue his stand-up career. "His long reign as the highest-rated late-night host is a testament to his work ethic and dedication to his viewers and to NBC."
There's been speculation that NBC acted out of fear - that ABC, which installed Jimmy Kimmel, 45, into an earlier 11:35 slot in January, might lure younger viewers away, or that Fallon would bolt for another network if he wasn't promised the Tonight Show brass ring. (NBC declined interview requests).
The network had been there once before, keeping Conan O'Brien around in 2004 by promising he'd inherit Leno's chair five years later, only to pull the plug when Leno's prime time show tanked and O'Brien's ratings faltered. Its next step is to replace Fallon at 12:35, where candidates include another SNL veteran and Weekend Update anchor, Seth Meyers.
But all programmers must contend with the fact that not many young viewers are watching network talk shows. Fifteen years ago, ABC, NBC and CBS commanded 21% of the young-adult audience in late night; now they muster a combined 4%. The format is largely broken, says a veteran producer of one, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to comment publicly. He says the shows' reduced stature makes a transition now easier to accomplish by putting less pressure on a newcomer to produce big ratings.
And Leno helped smooth the way, appearing in a joke-video duet with Fallon on Monday night and graciously bowing out in an official announcement. "Congratulations, Jimmy," he said. "I hope you're as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you're the old guy."
Despite Fallon's relative youth, his audience isn't that much younger, with an average age of 53, compared with 58 for Leno and 56 for Letterman. (Viewers of O'Brien's TBS show, though far fewer in number, are more youthful with an average age of 36, while Colbert's and Stewart's are about 42).
But he brings a skill set lacking in some other, more angst-ridden hosts. He's not a stand-up comedian or acerbic commentator, but a singing, dancing performer, schooled in sketch comedy, who hasn't done many serious interviews but is more aimed at engaging his audience with viral videos and social media.
That effort is critical as the late-night audience ages and shrinks further.
"Advertisers find the hipper, cutting-edge environment more attractive," says Tim Spengler, worldwide CEO at ad firm Magna Global, who says the popularity of Fallon's work off the air "portends momentum and potential future growth for the program."
And Simon says the blending of the Tonight Show and SNL "traditions will bring a new flavor" to Fallon's show in its shiny new studio, to be built near his current home at Rockefeller Center, where he'll displace Dr. Oz. Though, like in many late-night shows, there's irony involved: "SNL started as a reaction against the whole Tonight Show tradition, and now it's part and parcel with it."
Gary Levin, USA TODAY