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Late-Night Hosts Poised to Play Musical Chairs

Still not ready for prime time: Jimmy Fallon (left) gets help with his tie from Jay Leno during a 2004 appearance on the <em>Tonight Show</em>.
Kevin Winter
/
Getty Images
Still not ready for prime time: Jimmy Fallon (left) gets help with his tie from Jay Leno during a 2004 appearance on the Tonight Show.
Conan O'Brien has started performing a longer monologue on <em>Late Night</em> — possibly in  preparation for his new gig hosting the <em>Tonight Show</em>.
Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Conan O'Brien has started performing a longer monologue on Late Night — possibly in preparation for his new gig hosting the Tonight Show.

There's a game of musical chairs coming on late-night television, and it could potentially involve multiple hosts at multiple networks.

NBC was planning to announce big, upcoming changes in its late-night programming next week. But the news already has leaked: In June 2009, when Jay Leno steps down from The Tonight Show to be replaced by Conan O'Brien of Late Night, Jimmy Fallon of Saturday Night Live is likely to take over O'Brien's 12:30 a.m. slot.

The last changing of the guard at The Tonight Show, when long-time host Johnny Carson retired in 1992, sparked an intense battle between Leno and heir-apparent David Letterman. The drama inspired a book, The Late Shift, which led to an HBO movie. Author Bill Carter says this new round of changes might be just as dramatic.

"There is the potential for things to go wrong," he warns.

Can O'Brien Make Successful Transition?

NBC has tried to ensure an orderly succession. Back in 2004, the network carefully laid out its plans: O'Brien would replace Leno in five years. But as the time draws near, the pending change raises big questions about a lucrative time slot.

For NBC, the issue is whether O'Brien can adapt an approach that works well at 12:30 to something that would appeal to The Tonight Show's broader audience an hour earlier.

"Unlike most of these guys who have done the show — and certainly Letterman and Leno — Conan never went around to clubs and performed as a stand-up," Carter says. "So he doesn't really have that in his DNA the way some of these guys do."

But O'Brien has begun to transition. Carter notes that the host started doing a longer opening monologue, a staple of The Tonight Show.

Shari Anne Brill, who analyzes programming for advertisers, says she thinks O'Brien "can make somewhat of a transition, but his programming is much edgier."

Brill adds that there's the distinct possibility Leno will move to another network's late-night shift, which might be bad news for O'Brien.

"I think if Leno were in a competitive time slot, his audience would go to Leno and not go to Conan," says Brill.

Leno Isn't Tipping His Hand

Which raises the question: What will Leno do? For six months, nothing — at least not on television. He'll remain under contract to NBC while O'Brien tests his wings.

Beyond that, it's anyone's guess. Carter says Leno is keeping uncharacteristically quiet about his plans, but it looks like he might look for another network.

"His philosophy is, 'I'm guy who tells jokes at 11:30 at night,'" Carter says.

Leno will have a couple of networks ready to offer him airtime. Brill thinks Fox could land him. But the Fox local news shows end at 11 p.m., meaning Leno would get a half-hour head start on his competition.

Carter thinks that could be problematic Leno's current network. "If it is in his soul to go kick NBC's butt for getting rid of him, and a lot of people think it is, then he has to go head-to-head for it to be an easy comparison," he says.

ABC could provide an 11:30 p.m. time, Carter says, suggesting ABC wouldn't hesitate to kill off Nightline and put Leno in its place.

But that scenario might annoy Jimmy Kimmel, whose show now starts after Nightline ends at 12:05 a.m. If Leno took ABC's 11:30 slot, Kimmel would be pushed back to 12:35 p.m. If Kimmel got miffed, he could wind up at Fox.

And with all the potential for turmoil, Carter could wind up with another book deal.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.