NBC's Jay Leno plan has some insiders baffled

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Reports that NBC is quietly planning to dump top-rated Jay Leno has some Hollywood insiders baffled.

Though NBC hasn’t officially announced any changes to its late-night lineup, multiple media outlets and sources suggest the network intends to replace the longtime Tonight Show host with Late Night‘s Jimmy Fallon by the end of next year. One common reaction among some broadcast and late-night veterans goes like this: NBC is the lowest-rated major broadcast network, yet Leno is the No. 1 late-night host. Fallon is currently averaging two-thirds of Leno’s 18-49 rating and half his viewership. Dumping Leno — especially within the next year — seems ill advised; like a man falling off a building who lights his hair on fire.

“I’m still trying to make sense of it,” says one late-night insider not affiliated with NBC. “I don’t understand it on many levels. I don’t understand why a network doing so badly looks at the one part that’s winning and says, ‘Let’s create chaos there.’ They already created a s–t storm at the Today show. Why would they want to create drama in late night?”

A couple insiders noted the move feels like NBC is making the same mistake as when its previous executive team gave Conan O’Brien The Tonight Show in 2009, then were forced to embarrassingly renege on the deal a year later after Leno’s short-lived 10 p.m. show failed. “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” one broadcast insider says. While another network executive expressed the same idea more bluntly: “It’s so f–king hilarious that NBC won’t learn from its past experiences.” It should be pointed out, however, that Leno’s prime-time show had ratings that would now would be a blessing on some nights for NBC.

Another factor is a cynical (though accurate) theory that states shaking up viewer habits when you’re winning a time period is pretty much always bad — especially nowadays. TV viewers are creatures of habit. Major content shifts force viewers to reevaluate how they spend their time. In an era when broadcast’s share of the marketplace is eroding, viewer reevaluation is never a good thing when you’re in first place — whether it’s a morning show or a late-night program.

On the other hand, the argument for ditching Leno contends that NBC eventually needs to find a new, younger host for the show. Plus, Leno is more expensive than Fallon and isn’t the cash cow he used to be. Deep inside NBC there’s probably a balance sheet with a complicated equation factoring ratings, budgets, and ad revenue that concludes giving Fallon the 11:35 p.m. slot is the more profitable decision. “They need to do it at some point,” yet another broadcast insider opines. “Fallon probably costs half as much as Leno. And think of the culture over there — [NBC executives are now all about] Parks and Recreation and Community and Smash. Jay is Cheers and Frasier.”

Which, of course, is actually an additional reason why NBC might be about to misstep — Leno (who made another joke about the shakeup headlines Thursday night) has broad appeal that extends back to the network’s glory days. “People like Jay Leno,” says one rival broadcast executive. “He’s broader than any of [the late-night hosts] in terms of appealing nationally.”

NBC’s decision was likely given added urgency by ABC shifting Jimmy Kimmel Live to 11:30 p.m. The move was considered a land grab for younger viewers in an hour that’s been long ruled by two men in their 60s. Some in late-night assumed the 45-year-old Kimmel would start easily winning the hour. “But that’s not happening,” the late-night veteran points out. “Jay beats Kimmel every week, and Dave beats him many weeks. And Kimmel’s viewers and household numbers are way below Jay and Dave.”

At least one late-night insider believes replacing Leno is a good idea — Kimmel himself. The host told CNN’s Jake Tapper today that the decision “makes perfect sense.” Said Kimmel: “Jimmy Fallon is doing a great job. And he’s very popular. And so, I mean, hey, eventually, it’s going to happen one way or the other.”

NBC is not commenting on the reports and at least one long-term insider at a rival broadcaster still isn’t fully convinced NBC will go through with the plan. “I choose to believe NBC is not that stupid,” he said. “And I think NBC is pretty stupid.”

LATE NIGHT SEASON-TO-DATE RATINGS

ADULTS 18-49

NBC “Tonight,” 0.8 rating
CBS “Late Show,” 0.7
ABC “Kimmel,” 0.7*
NBC “Late Night,” 0.5
CBS “Late Late Show,” 0.4
NBC “Last Call,” 0.3

TOTAL VIEWERS

NBC “Tonight,” 3.5 million viewers
CBS “Late Show,” 3.1 million viewers
ABC “Kimmel,” 2.6 million viewers*
NBC “Late Night,” 1.7 million viewers
CBS “Late Late Show,” 1.5 million viewers
NBC “Last Call,” 0.9 million viewers
*Since Jan. 8

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