Somewhere Conan O’Brien is probably smiling. There’s word that NBC brass are ruminating over Jay Leno’s future — which would involve finally giving their current late-late guy comic, Jimmy Fallon, the coveted job as the host of "The Tonight Show."
The latest rumblings about Leno come from various talent agents who admit they have quietly been contacted by NBC officials hoping to find a new late-late host who will eventually take over Fallon’s 12:35 a.m. time slot.
Leno’s current $15 million a year deal expires in 2014, and came about after he “volunteered” to take a 50% pay cut earlier this year, a move that helped NBC slash "The Tonight Show’s" $100 million budget by about 20%.
But my money is on how NBC brass are betting it’s high time they cash in on a generational shift toward younger viewers that has been going on in late-night television for some time.
ABC will be the first to capitalize on the shift next month when their own late-late guy, Jimmy Kimmel, moves his show to 11:35 p.m., switching places with “Nightline” in a bid to boost the network’s percentage of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 — a group prized by advertisers.
It doesn’t hurt at all that “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is an entertainment program headed by a star 20 years younger than his new time slot rivals, Letterman and Leno.
Meanwhile, at CBS, Leno’s nemesis, David Letterman, is also under contract until 2014, and there has been a long unsaid understanding throughout the TV industry that Leno won’t step down until Dave does.
Of course, as these rumblings may prove, Jay could always be pushed — but he’s proven over the years that he’s harder to kill than Dracula.
Take the September 2009 fiasco when then-NBC chief Jeff Zucker carved out a 10 p.m. time slot for "The Jay Leno Show” because Jay reportedly insisted that he didn’t want to leave the network.
Up until that moment, there had been a long-planned transition in the works for Leno to step down from “Tonight” and pass the torch to O’Brien.
But Jay didn’t go away.
Instead his prime-time show turned out to be a flop, and worse, it shifted the spotlight away from O’Brien’s debut and cannibalized “Tonight Show" viewers.
By January, Leno was back on "The Tonight Show" and O’Brien was out of a job — although he was paid millions to leave the network — eventually landing another late-night talk show on TBS.
Maybe this time Leno will just quietly go away.
I’m betting he won’t.