“Tonight” transition set for next June


Jay Leno will host NBC’s “Tonight” show for the last time on Friday, May 29th. Then, the Conan O’Brien era will begin Monday, June 1, 2009. The official timetable was announced yesterday, even as USA Today ran quotes from Leno making it clear that he has no intention of retiring from television.

"’The Tonight Show’ has a remarkable history rich in tradition. We’re proud of each and every show Jay has shared with America as we look forward to Conan carrying on that outstanding tradition next year," said Rick Ludwin, Executive Vice President, Late Night and Primetime Series, NBC Entertainment.

Filling O’Brien’s late night slot will be Jimmy Fallon. He’ll be getting a tryout on the Internet over the next few months to hone his hosting skills.

"We also can’t wait for Jimmy to showcase his winning style following Conan. Jay has left his personal stamp on ‘The Tonight Show’ for what will be 17 years. He is enormously creative, generous and professional," said Ludwig.

“I’m definitely done next year – with NBC,” Leno said in the USA Today article. NBC executives then spent the day on damage control, insisting that Leno was referring only to being done with his “Tonight” show hosting, not the network it airs on. NBC is believed to be pitching new ideas to keep Leno on the Peacock network – and, just as importantly, keep him from making the slot following local evening newscasts a three-way battle between O’Brien on NBC, David Letterman on CBS and Leno on either ABC or Fox.

USA Today said it asked Leno whether he might go to another network. “I’m not a beach guy,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’ll find a job somewhere,” Leno added.

NBC provided a history of the show:

"The Tonight Show" continues to be the most dominant late-night institution in television history. Since it first premiered on September 27, 1954 with Steve Allen, "The Tonight Show" has had just four permanent hosts, including Leno. Allen, host of the then titled "Tonight," eventually left late night to start his own primetime variety series on NBC. Jack Paar premiered on July 29, 1957. On October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson stepped on stage for day one of his tenure as host of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Leno, who began guest-hosting "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in September 1987, became host of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on May 25, 1992. O’Brien joined NBC as a writer on "Saturday Night Live" in 1988 and premiered as host of "Late Night with Conan O’Brien" on September 13, 1993.

RBR/TVBR observation: For those of us old enough to remember the “Tonight” show back to Jack Parr’s days (hey, we’re not old enough to remember when Steve Allen kicked it off in 1954) it seems like this is a show that may outlive us. The transitions have always been filled with anxiety – from Allen to Parr to Johnny Carson to Jay Leno – and now again to Conan O’Brien. There are always doubts about whether a new host can hold the audience. There were worries when O’Brien took over the “Late Night” slot from David Letterman, as there were when Leno took over instead of Carson’s preferred choice, Letterman. But O’Brien hit his stride, as did Leno. The only difference this time is that Leno is not really retiring from the show by choice. The non-NBC networks have always lusted after that time slot, but only CBS, with Letterman, has ever succeeded in launching a viable challenger. What else might NBC offer Leno to keep him happy in the Peacock coop, while both ABC and Fox are dangling new opportunities in front of him?