Jay Leno leaves 'The Tonight Show': Why this transition should work better than the last one

jay-leno-continues-to-mock-nbc-gi.jpgThere's a telling quote from NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke in the announcement Wednesday (April 3) that Jay Leno will hand over the reins of "The Tonight Show" to Jimmy Fallon next year.

"We are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was No. 1," Burke says in a statement.

That was also the plan four years ago -- or nine years ago, when NBC first announced its five-year plan to have Conan O'Brien replace Leno on "Tonight" in 2009. Leno was going to go out on top, and O'Brien would be the new steward of a show and a legacy he revered.

Of course, it didn't work out that way. NBC, fearful that Leno would jump to another network and damage one part of its business that was actually working pretty well, gave him a prime-time show. "The Jay Leno Show" managed both to undermine O'Brien and do major harm to the network's already flagging ratings in primetime. NBC is in some ways still climbing out of a hole that "The Jay Leno Show" helped dig, as the network set back its drama development in a desperate play to keep Leno in the fold.

NBC's announcement acts as though O'Brien's eight-month run on "Tonight" never happened, glossing over the interruption in Leno's tenure in the rush of praise for him and his (next) replacement. In fairness to Burke, the botched transition to O'Brien happened before Comcast took over NBC, and no one would expect the network to relive the awful way the Conan affair was handled in a press release.

The network does, however, appear to have learned something from that sorry episode, and it looks like this transition will go more smoothly (and not just because Leno and Fallon sang a song about it on the air). For starters, as noted in this New York Times story about the backstage workings of the deal, Leno was involved in the process, pointed jokes about NBC in his monologues aside.

"The main difference between this and the other time is I'm part of the process," Leno tells the Times. "The last time the decision was made without me. I came into work one day and -- you're out. ... This time it feels right."

Another big difference between then and now, though, is that Leno isn't the late-night king he once was. "The Tonight Show" remains the top late-night show, but its lead over the competition is considerably smaller than it was.

In Leno's final season before O'Brien took over, "The Tonight Show" averaged a million-plus more viewers than "The Late Show with David Letterman" and was about half a point better among adults 18-49. In the past couple weeks, "Tonight" has led "The Late Show" by only about 500,000 viewers (and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" by 800,000 or so), and the three shows' adults 18-49 ratings are virtually even.

All of which is to say that the threat of Leno popping up on another network doesn't loom as large to NBC as it might have a few years ago. Leno insists he'll be content as a full-time stand-up comic and caretaker of his vast auto collection, but even if that turns out not to be the case, he probably won't send NBC executives into panic mode.
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