Reports surfaced recently that NBC executives are exploring the option of replacing Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show when Leno's contract runs up in September 2014. For those who follow these late night skirmishes, it seems like this is happening awfully soon after 2010's Leno/Conan Tonight Show debacle, in which Leno handed over his show and happily took it back less than a year later when his primetime talk show failed. NBC will probably keep Leno around longer than 2014, but the fact that they're starting to explore a post-Leno Tonight Show means the big transition isn't so far away. It's likely, though, that this will be the last headline-grabbing talk show power struggle for a while because the late night landscape has changed so much the past few years. And it probably won't be a bloody battle like the last one given how super polite and new to the job Jimmy Fallon is.
Here are 9 reasons why Jay Leno's retirement – which has to happen eventually – will leave the late night world a much more peaceful place than it was when he got his show in 1992:
1. The Tonight Show doesn't mean what it used to
This isn't Johnny Carson's Tonight Show anymore. The series was a late night pioneer, and it was pretty much the only game in town during Carson's reign. But Leno's far less popular stint as host plus the bungled handoff to Conan in '09 has lost the show a lot of the esteem and clout it once had. The Tonight Show is no longer a dynasty; it's just another talk show.
2. There are more late night shows than ever before, meaning there's enough room for everybody
The past few years have seen a major expansion in the amount of late night series on TV. In addition to all the network shows (Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, Ferguson, and Fallon, plus Carson Daly's show is still a thing), there's also The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Chelsea Lately, Conan, and Watch What Happens Live all airing 4-5 nights a week on cable and a whole ton of others airing weekly like Brand X with Russell Brand and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX, Don't Sleep! with T.J. Holmes on BET, and the brand new Nikki and Sara Live on MTV. On top of all that, Arsenio Hall is launching a new syndicated show, Pete Holmes filmed a pilot for a post-Conan show on TBS, and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's company Gary Sanchez is making a late night talk show in the style of a morning show for USA. Comedians are still fighting to get talk shows, but they're not all fighting for one talk show anymore.
3. Most of the late night talk show hosts are friends now
Despite coming from rival networks, opposite sides of the country, and multiple generations, the current batch of late night hosts are pretty chummy with each other and get along way better than Leno and Letterman ever have.
Here's a map of who's done whose show in the three years since the 2010 Conan/Leno fiasco (Arrows both ways indicate the hosts have swapped appearances, while one way arrows only indicate one of the hosts has appeared on the other's show):
4. Late night hosts aren't pulled exclusively from the acidic stand-up world anymore
"Our way of life at The Comedy Store is exactly the way you'd think it would be for a group of comics. It was tinged with sarcasm and ugliness and insult, but everybody loved it. We thrived on it. We could call each other names, we could steal each other's jokes, we could make fun of each other's girlfriends… You take that out of the comedy store and all of the sudden, 'Oh my God, it's Civil War! We can't believe it!' But the truth of it is the way Jay and I behaved toward each other is the way comics tend to behave toward one another."
– Letterman to Oprah last month
Letterman readily admits in the above quote that his relationship with Leno was fueled by the caustic environment from the stand-up world, but late night talk show hosts today mostly aren't bred from stand-up clubs and that means the comedy club baggage Letterman describes doesn't get transported into the medium. Before landing their late night shows, Conan O'Brien was a TV writer, Jimmy Kimmel was a radio and TV host, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert were best known as sketch actors, Craig Ferguson was a sitcom actor best known for his character stand-up prior to that, and Carson Daly was a VJ. Sure, Jon Stewart and Chelsea Handler come from stand-ups, but they're the exceptions these days.
5. The late night audience has shrunk
Cable, DVR, the internet, and sleep have eroded the audience of the big networks' late night shows, making the jobs that much less coveted. With Hulu and YouTube clips of talk shows, it doesn't matter what timeslot a show airs in, what network it's on, or what it's called – as long as people are watching it.
6. Late night hosts are cautious of bitterness
Take last time's late night wars. While Letterman, Conan, and Kimmel had a field day with making fun of Leno selfishly taking his old job back, Fallon didn't take sides (which was partly a political move that helped him become a serious contender for replacing Leno) and neither did Ferguson, who told his audience, "I know this isn't really a late-night talk show. It's just something that happens about the same time." There's such a huge lack of rivalry between Fallon and Ferguson, who compete on the two biggest networks in late night during the exact same timeslot, that they even waved to each other while on air once in a crossover-ish stunt. It's hard to imagine Leno and Letterman ever engaging in something so sweet and chummy. After most comedians in the business expressed support for Conan O'Brien and disgust for Jay Leno during the Tonight Show debacle (except Leno's buddies Jerry Seinfeld and, um, Paul Reiser), it seems like Leno's behavior has made him an anti-role model for late night hosts and aspiring late night hosts alike.
7. Ratings are spread out across all the shows, so there's not one coveted late night gig
The Tonight Show and The Late Show are no longer the ratings juggernauts they used to be. Here are average late night ratings of all the big shows for the week of February 4th-8th, 2013 (via Zap2It). As you can see, most of the shows are neck in neck, and the whole late night landscape only covers a span of less than 3 million viewers:
Leno 3.5 million viewers/0.8 rating with adults 18-49
Letterman 3.5 million/0.8
Kimmel 2.5 million/0.7
Stewart 1.8 million/0.8
Fallon 1.6 million/0.5
Ferguson 1.6 million/0.5
Colbert 1.4 million/0.6
Daly 0.9 million/0.3
O'Brien 0.8 million/0.4
8. Late night franchises are dying out
The last five nightly late night shows to start up were Conan, Lopez Tonight, Chelsea Lately, The Colbert Report, and Jimmy Kimmel Live – all shows that specifically incorporate their host's name into the title and avoid the Tonight Show with ______ title format that allows for hosts to be easily slid in and out of the franchise without a complete title change. There won't be a battle to see who will be the host of Conan because only Conan can be the host of Conan. TBS won't be able to take his job away like NBC did.
9. Once Jay Leno retires, there will be no more Jay Lenos
Leno is the only talk show host who's on the record for hiding in a closet to listen to a network meeting. The dude is a rare breed.
Graphic designed by: David Kantrowitz