Jimmy Fallon is on track to replace Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show on NBC in 2014, according to unnamed sources in The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter.
Fallon, currently host of NBC's Late Night, will likely move The Tonight Show back to the network's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York City, according to The Times. Tonight started there with Steve Allen as host in 1954. The show moved to California in 1972 with host Johnny Carson.
Both news outlets say the timing of a switch from Leno to Fallon is a point of debate among network executives. The Hollywood Reporter says this:
According to these sources, some top executives at NBCUniversal are leaning toward a February launch to take advantage of the promotional platform of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Others, including Late Night executive producer Lorne Michaels, are said to have concerns about rushing the transition.
Speculation in The Times puts the transition from Leno to Fallon at no later than the fall of 2014, when Leno's contract is set to expire.
NBC has not said publicly what its plans are for the show.
Leno, for his part, has ratings and history on his side. He was moved out of the Tonight host's seat several years ago in favor of a younger Conan O'Brien, only to return to the helm less than a year later. Since then he has pushed Tonight back to the top of the ratings. Entertainment Weekly sees Leno's power and resilience as something to keep in mind:
Because of Leno's [ratings] dominance, there has to be some fear that Fallon may not be able to hold onto that lead if he ever does succeed Leno, a veritable every man who tells jokes that have every man appeal. Longtime Leno fans may not stick around to watch the younger guy, and the poor lead-in that NBC is currently offering isn't doing The Tonight Show any favors.
Leno has made light on-air recently of NBC's primetime ratings problems. And on Monday's show, he went right at the network's executives. Here's CNN's report:
During his opening monologue, Jay Leno took a shot at the higher-ups of his network by saying, "You know the whole legend of St. Patrick, right? St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, and then they came into the United States and became NBC executives."
Update on Thursday, March 21 at 6:55 p.m. ET. Fallon Could Enliven Show
Bill Carter, who covers the television industry for The New York Times, says the biggest surprise is that the show might move to back to New York City. He tells Robert Siegel, host of All Things Considered, that a change of location could redefine the show.
"I think there's a sense that Fallon is a New York act. I mean, he's known for Saturday Night Live more than anything else," he says. "And I think there's an energy in New York that they like."
Carter says Fallon naturally appeals to a different and younger audience, which is vital for NBC.
"He's also a range of talent — he sings, he dances and he did that extremely funny bit with Michelle Obama as well very recently," he says. "I think there's a sense that this is a new way to do the show; [he's] not just a stand-up comedian who is gonna tell jokes."
But Carter acknowledges that shifting from Leno to Fallon may not be easy or immediately successful.
"It's going to be a risk for them and they may suffer some losses in the short term, hoping in the long term they have the right guy," he says."[But] this format, which has been the same for 60 years, is gonna have to change."
You can listen to the rest of their conversation at the top of this post.