The Tonight Show succession rumor mill has been spinning for months now and on Wednesday The New York Times’ Bill Carter reported that NBC has committed to having Late Night host Jimmy Fallon succeed Jay Leno and moving the program from Burbank, Calif., back to New York.
Carter says the network has yet to complete the deal but it has been speculated that the succession would likely take place by fall 2014, when Leno’s contract is said to expire. An NBC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The Tonight Show moved to Burbank in 1972 after being based at NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza since 1954. Fallon’s Late Night already tapes in New York, as does CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman; returning Tonight to New York would leave ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live as the only 11:35 p.m. talker based on the West Coast.
Comcast this week completed its acquisition of the remaining 49% interest in NBCUniversal, including its properties at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and the Times reports that NBC is building a new Tonight show studio there to house the program when Fallon inherits it
Any succession comes with great risk given NBC’s botched transition from Leno to Conan O’Brien in 2010 that ended with Leno regaining the program after seven months and O’Brien bolting for TBS, leaving many severed relationships in his wake.
But doing nothing is also risky, as ABC in January bumped up Kimmel to 11:35 p.m. in an attempt to gain a foothold with younger viewers. Though The Tonight Show still regularly tops the weekly ratings in total viewers and adults 18-49, the race among younger viewers is tighter. During the recently competed February sweep, Leno had a healthy 1 million total-viewer lead over Kimmel; among adults 18-49, it was only 107,000.
Leno for his part reportedly drew the ire of NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt last week for making jokes during his monologue about the network’s dismal ratings performance, further fanning the flames of speculation that he could be on the way out.