Can NBC Get Jay Leno to Leave the Tonight Show Now?

Inside NBC’s late-night game.

I never thought I’d say this, but I feel sorry for Jay Leno.

Once again, NBC is trying to dump Leno as host of the Tonight Show. This time, it’s for Late Night darling Jimmy Fallon. Leno is 62.  Fallon is 38. Leno is unhip. Fallon is cool. Leno drags out corny bits and works like a mule. Fallon “Mom dances” with Michelle Obama.

Nobody ever accused the TV business of having a heart, but NBC’s latest humiliation of Leno—the king of late night for two decades—lacks even the slightest semblance of humanity. Have you no sense of decency, NBC?

No wonder the poor guy takes shots at the network in his nightly monologues. NBC should be grateful they’re not real shots.

Leno, who took over Tonight from the legendary Johnny Carson in 1992, has been here before. He had to beat out David Letterman (Carson’s choice) for the job. In 2010, he was replaced by Conan O’Brien, a short-lived disaster that cost NBC a $45 million payoff to O’Brien, who bolted to TBS.

Leno is nothing if not theatrical. On the day in ’92 that NBC finally announced it had chosen him over Letterman, Leno roared into the press conference, in the ballroom of a posh L.A. hotel, on a big-ass motorcycle. I was there, along with 100 or so other surprised TV writers.

Given that NBC had promised Leno the show in the first place, it made for great theater. Only in America, Leno said, would someone hold a press event to announce he had not been fired. As I recall, his best line went something like this: NBC’s initials stand for “No Binding Contract.”

Twenty-one years later, that hasn’t changed for Leno. His latest deal runs until September 2014, but NBC, now owned by Comcast, would be thrilled to pay him to exit the premises before then.

Here’s why: With ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, 45, having been moved up to 11:35 p.m., NBC doesn’t want to lose its foothold with younger viewers. Letterman turns 66 next month. All three go head-to-head with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, 48, for the first half hour.

The irony is that these numbers hold little relevance in today’s media universe. Nobody under 50 watches TV shows during their scheduled airtimes, or even on TVs, for that matter. Most 20-to-30-year-olds couldn’t pick Leno’s face out of a lineup.

Another factor is that NBC is a mess. Though still dominant in late night and the evening news, it no longer controls prime time, weekday mornings or Sunday political talk shows. Why take a chance with one of only two healthy franchises?

Why, indeed. NBC is compounding the gamble by planning to bring Tonight back to New York next year from Burbank, California, its home since 1972. That seals the deal for Fallon, a New Yorker.

As it did with co-anchor Ann Curry on Today last year, NBC is letting Leno twist in the wind as it plots to replace him. It has all the finesse of a botched assassination.

Leno deserves better.

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