Jim Bell to Exit NBC; Gavin Purcell Returns to 'Tonight Show'

Getty Images; Heidi Gutman/NBCUniversal
Gavin Purcell (left), Jim Bell

Bell is leaving NBCUniversal after nearly three decades.

Jim Bell, currently the showrunner at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, will exit NBC after nearly three decades. Gavin Purcell, who recently signed a scripted and unscripted producing deal with Universal Television, will return to The Tonight Show as showrunner for an interim period.

The news caps the NBC career of Bell, who began his tenure at the network in 1990, when he was hired as a researcher for the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. He has worked every Olympics since then, first at sports, then at news and then sports again, where he rose to the top job at NBC's Olympics unit.

Bell also had a tenure at NBC News, where he was the executive producer of NBC News' flagship morning show Today, which he was tapped to helm in 2006. He presided over the show during the top-rated tenures of Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer, and also the period after Vieira left and then NBC News president Steve Capus promoted Ann Curry to replace her. The Lauer-Curry pairing was a rocky one and, in 2012, Today lost its unprecedented 852-week morning TV winning streak to ABC's Good Morning America.

Bell returned to sports later that year and Curry was replaced by Savannah Guthrie, making her debut during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Bell came up at NBC Sports under Dick Ebersol, the division's legendary impresario who also had a hand in the early days of Saturday Night Live. Like Ebersol, Bell is a formidable live TV producer. He segued between live sports and live news for nearly the entirety of his career at NBC, and worked under current NBC Sports chief Mark Lazarus during several Olympic Games. 

In October 2018, Bell was tapped to bring some order to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which had cycled through multiple showrunners and was feeling the heat from a resurgent Late Show With Stephen Colbert on CBS. Bell informed the Tonight Show staff of his departure on Monday morning. His last show will be Thursday's broadcast from Austin, Texas. 

Purcell has a long relationship with Fallon, having worked with the host on Late Night and helping to launch Fallon on The Tonight Show in 2014, following the exit of Jay Leno. He was most recently showrunner and executive producer on Hulu’s I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman. Purcell was previously a producer and writer on The Tonight Show, where he was in charge of on-air production and interactive elements. His return emphasizes the show’s focus on its digital and social strengths.

In a statement, Bell explained his departure: "Last fall, after executive producing a successful Winter Olympics in South Korea and the men’s World Cup tournament in Russia, the company asked me if I would become the executive in charge of production for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon while I was also preparing for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. As has been the case for my nearly 30 years at NBC, I said yes to their request, adding only that I would commit for a year and we would review the situation at that time."

The statement continued: "The past year with Jimmy and the terrific team at the show has been a blast, and I will always be grateful for this opportunity. But after serious contemplation, I realized I did not want to extend my time at the show. Those thoughts are part of larger ones I have been having about my career, and what has emerged for me is a strong desire to delve into something new — to build on my experience in news, sports, and entertainment so I can broaden and deepen my leadership role in the content universe. Along with my Olympic colleagues, we have positioned NBC Sports for an incredible Summer Olympics next year, and so I believe the timing is perfect for me to forge a new path. I will always look back on my years at NBC as an extraordinary chapter in my life, and thank the many talented individuals who have joined me in truly meaningful work around the globe. Right now I am looking forward to a great show in Texas."