The savage late night wars that have decimated careers and left several rich white men without television programs have taken another victim: Jay Leno. Leno, who is the commander of the Tonight Show, recently lost significant ground to his former ally Jimmy Fallon. In March, Fallon was named as Leno’s successor on the tonight show when Leno’s contract ends in fall 2014. Industry insiders speculated that network brass would can Leno much earlier than that, but TMZ reported that penalties built into Leno’s current contract make an early dismissal prohibitively expensive.
For those not paying attention, September 2014 will mark the second time in four years that Jay Leno steps down from his hosting role on the network’s top rated late night talk show. Leno has hosted the show since he swindled it away from David Letterman in 1992. Letterman was thought to be the successor to beloved Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, until Leno hoodwinked network executives into giving him the job, leaving Letterman without a show on NBC and the most significant casualty of Late Night War I.
After almost twenty years of peace, Late Night War II erupted in 2010, when NBC announced that Jay Leno would be stepping down from the tonight show in order to be replaced by Conan O’Brien, then the host of Late Nite. Leno reluctantly abdicated his role, clearing the way for Conan, but not before scorching the earth with a new 10 o’clock talk show, the Jay Leno Show. Leno’s new show crashed and burned so fast and bright that NBC had little choice but to restore him as the host of the Tonight Show a little more than six months after he left. O’Brien, now without a show on NBC, was the most significant casualty of LNWII.
And now, just as the world is recovering from LNWII, we find ourselves in the midst of Late Night War III. While the bloodshed has been kept to a minimum so far, it’s still in the early stages and the armies are still amassing.
Leno’s current contract ends in September of 2014, the beginning of the new television season. NBC is struggling to compete with Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show on ABC, which attracts a younger viewing audience than Leno and was recently moved to the same time slot. NBC thinks Fallon is the man to free those that have been captured by Kimmel, and are pushing Leno out when his contract expires.
Television scholars and insiders have speculated that NBC was planning to force Leno out before his contract expired, with many sources saying that action would occur on the front of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Late Night War journalists TMZ, who bravely covered the second late night conflict from the front lines, have confirmed that Leno’s current contract is ironclad. Still, this all remains speculation, as NBC continues to deny the existence of the rumored plans. Fallon addressed the rumors in his own monologue earlier this week, saying that he would be helping turn the Tonight Show into a televised diving competition.
And so, as always, the war for late night ratings supremacy marches on. Will Leno willingly surrender the Tonight Show, which he has successfully defended through two separate hostilities, or will he succumb to the youngish smarm and swagger of Fallon? Only time will tell!