After months of talking and thousands of stories, tonight baton will be passed to Jimmy Fallon.
This one is also a cross-country handoff, as Fallon moves “The Tonight Show” back to New York for the first time since Johnny Carson shuffled it off to Los Angeles in 1972.
The NY Daily News says that while Fallon makes no secret of his reverence for Carson’s “Tonight” and the tradition of the show, he enters a far different landscape than Carson ruled.
Under Jay Leno, host for most of the past 22 years, “Tonight” generally maintained the largest late-night viewership. But it’s a smaller audience in a fragmented market.
“Tonight” has averaged 3.9 million viewers so far this season, to 2.9 million for David Letterman on CBS and 2.6 million for Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.
Conan O’Brien on TBS has averaged slightly under a million and Jon Stewart’s "Daily Show" on Comedy Central has averaged 1.5 million. Arsenio Hall also recently re-entered the mix.
Fallon says the competition changes things, and it doesn’t.
“You have a lot of options,” he told TV critics last month. “I do my show. I can’t worry about that stuff.”
NBC can. One major reason the network is replacing Leno now, as it tried to replace him with Conan four years ago, is that Fallon, at 39, is 24 years younger than Leno and ideally will draw younger viewers without chasing Leno’s Middle America audience away.
Holding the late-night lead is especially important for a network whose long-running morning dominance has disappeared.
But for all the mystique and prestige of “Tonight,” producer Josh Lieb says it’s still a television show.
“There’s no defined thing as to what ‘The Tonight Show’ is,” says Lieb. “There’s a reason Jimmy was picked to host this show, and people enjoyed his (‘Late Night’) show. It’s what we do, and it’s a lot of fun.”