Leno's Future, Letterman's Plan: 5 Big Questions in NBC's 'Tonight Show' Shake-up

Jimmy Fallon Jay Leno Split - Key art - H 2013
Mark Seliger/NBC; Jeff Riedel/NBC

Jimmy Fallon Jay Leno Split - Key art - H 2013

With NBC confirming Wednesday what most insiders already knew -- Jimmy Fallon will take over for Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show in spring 2014 -- attention is turning to the fallout from the decision. Here are five burning questions, including what's next for Leno and what this all means for Late Night:

1. Who replaces Fallon at Late Night?

While one source suggests that NBC still is considering its options, others note that Fallon's Late Night chair is Seth Meyers’ to lose. Working in Meyers' favor is a lengthy history with NBC as Saturday Night Live’s long-tenured writer and "Weekend Update" funnyman. He's also got a producer and mentor in SNL creator Lorne Michaels, who quietly has pulled many of the strings at the network of late. What’s more, Meyers has a built-in brand on TV and online, where he regularly tweets to his 1.8 million Twitter followers. Still, after Conan O'Brien and Fallon, there will be those who argue Meyers does little to shake things up for a tired genre, instead offering NBC more of the same: another thirtysomething white male with SNL on his résumé. To date, Meyers has stayed mum on his plans.

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2. Where does Leno go next?

Leno is not expected to make any quick decisions with regard to his next steps, say two people with knowledge of the comedian’s plans. More likely, he will ramp up his stand-up career in the near term and will weigh whatever options come his way. While the latter likely won’t be as lucrative as Tonight, which pays him roughly $15 million a year (down 40 percent after a recent salary cut), there will be options. "Syndication makes some sense or a cable network like USA that doesn't reach super-young [viewers]," says one late-night TV source. "I could see someone like that doing it but no one else."

Of course, the option most bandied about is a late-night show on Fox, a possibility that was worked into his skit with Fallon on April 1. Fox affiliate board chairman Steve Pruett recently told The New York Post that if the network were to present "the right business plan, the affiliate board would be interested." But Fox weighed the option of luring O'Brien when he was pushed out at Tonight and ultimately decided it did not make economic sense. And one top Fox insider notes that luring Leno this time would be highly unlikely as well. What's more, according to one top-level NBCUniversal source, NBC's decision to move forward with the Tonight handoff was based in part on a calculation that Leno would not readily find a new home at Fox or elsewhere that would make him a threat. “I find it hard to believe that if they couldn’t clear Conan [with their affiliates] that they would do it with an almost-65-year-old and give him a five-year contract,” that source tells The Hollywood Reporter

Outside of the Fox stations, syndication could prove a real challenge. Tribune already has locked up Arsenio Hall for a late-night debut this fall, though some suggest there is a world in which Tribune as well as WGN could become options for Leno. Also worth noting: If Hall succeeds, it will provide a vote of confidence for other syndicators that might consider taking another stab at the competitive genre. Still, many of the other independent stations already have made commitments to off-net sitcoms such as 2 Broke Girls or Modern Family for the foreseeable future. And, as one source puts it, benching Leno for a year or so is unlikely because the host, who works 24/7 on TV and in comedy clubs, isn't interested in sitting out. A source told THR on March 27: "He doesn't need the money, and he doesn't spend the money. Being on the air is much more important to him."

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Cable -- which aggressively has pushed into the late-night genre with such offerings as Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen (Bravo), Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell (FX) and Chelsea Lately (E!) -- also could present options for Leno. A network such as USA could prove an opportunity because it, like Leno, tends to skew a bit older. Multiple sources suggest at least two cable networks also have expressed interest in him. Other possibilities include a daytime show a la Ellen, a primetime variety show or even a CNN entry reuniting him with former NBCU chief Jeff Zucker, who famously set the last round of late-night wars in motion in 2004 when he promised O'Brien he would inherit The Tonight Show in 2009 if he re-upped on Late Night for five years. 

3. What does Tonight moving to New York mean for the late-night booking wars?

Expect to see another shift in leverage among late-night bookers as Tonight makes its move to New York to accommodate Manhattan-based Fallon. With CBS’ David Letterman and Fallon both in New York -- along with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, not to mention all the national morning shows -- ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel is poised to see a boost as the only Hollywood-based show in the all-important 11:35 p.m. slot. The latter will prove particularly key with TV-based talent, who are unable to travel with the kind of ease that film talent can. (Kimmel’s January move to 11:35 p.m., and the ratings boost that has accompanied it, already has led to stronger guest bookings than he'd had airing a half-hour later.)

Of course, after Fallon’s first few months, all of this could be a moot point since it’s not clear whether Letterman will continue when his contract expires in late 2014. If he opts to retire at that time, CBS could choose to move its Late Show franchise to Los Angeles, where its follow-up The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson currently tapes.

4. Will Letterman follow Leno out the door?

Whether Letterman stays or goes once his contract expires likely will remain a popular parlor game in media circles during the next year-plus. Unlike NBC, which now has pushed out its top-rated host twice, CBS has long left that decision in Letterman’s hands. And the two-year extension that he signed last spring was said to have made no mention of closure -- nor have there been any hints in the year since, says an insider. Still, at 65, it’s unlikely Letterman will continue too much longer.

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THR critic Tim Goodman has suggested that CBS would be wise to push Letterman to re-up for at least another year, allowing him to take some of the former Leno viewers looking for an elder statesman at that hour. CBS brass is said to be in favor of that scenario, say sources. For some time, both Ferguson and Colbert have been floated by the press as potential replacements when Letterman ultimately decides it’s time to move on.

5. What if NBC’s master plan doesn’t work?

Yes, this is a question worth asking. Kicking out the long-reigning leader in late night does not come without its share of risk, which NBC learned the hard way half a decade earlier when it pushed Leno out for O’Brien.

Kim Masters contributed to this report.

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose