NBC’s ‘Tonight Show’ Succession: Third Time’s the Charm?

Kimmel helped do what his hero Letterman couldn't: cost the top man in late night his job

If the third time is the charm in NBC's quest for a smooth "Tonight Show" transition, much of the charm comes courtesy of Jimmy Fallon.

You could fill two books (and the New York Times' Bill Carter did) with all the messy details of the previous two "Tonight" hand-offs involving Jay Leno. In 1992, he elbowed David Letterman out of the job and all the way to CBS, where he started a rival late-night show. In 2010, he took back "Tonight" after briefly ceding it to Conan O'Brien, driving O'Brien off to TBS.

This time around, Fallon has been exceedingly careful not to cast himself as a rival to Leno. He has been publicly friendly and pro-Jay even as NBC executives worked behind the scenes to replace the "Tonight" host.

Also read: Jimmy Fallon Replacing Jay Leno on 'Tonight' Next Spring, NBC Confirms

Fallon's charm offensive – especially effective because it seems so sincere – culminated in Fallon and Leno singing a sweet duet together in a sketch that aired Monday night. It ended with Fallon offering a plaintive "thank you" to the man who hands off to him each night.

It's good to be gracious when time is on your side. Fallon is getting Leno's job because NBC wants someone who can appeal to a young demographic. Fallon even sang a line saying so in his duet.

Also read: NBC Omits Conan O'Brien From Leno Exit Announcement

In the O'Brien debacle, Leno was able to reclaim his old job in part because he still had a contract to stay at NBC. This time around, his contract expires in the fall of 2014, giving him just a few months with the company after Fallon takes over in February.

The network is making the move preemptively, because Leno remains the leader in late night over CBS's "The Late Show With David Letterman" and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live." He is currently leading in the key demos, 18-49 and 25-54, as well as in total viewers. The fuss about him and Fallon has only improved his recent ratings.

But NBC is worried about the fact that Kimmel has taken a narrow lead in viewers 18-34, the next generation of insomniacs looking for laughs.

It might seem as if age is doing to Leno what Letterman and O'Brien could not – except that Letterman and O'Brien figure heavily into Leno's exit.

Late-night audiences tend to skew older, which is why they are measured in the 25-54 demographic (the same as that for news programs) as well as the 18-49 demo that is the most coveted in prime time.

When the fight for 11:35 p.m. was only between Letterman, 65, and Leno, 62, viewers chose their host on the basis of personal taste, not a generational divide. But the fight with O'Brien helped define Leno for many viewers as older, more middle-of-the-road, and less exciting than his spritely red-haired rival.

NBC hadn't set out to upset the late-night balance with its five-years-in the making plan to give "Tonight" to O'Brien, orchestrated by then NBC chief Jeff Zucker. The plan was to ease in a man of 46 – O'Brien was older than Leno when he first got "Tonight" – who had paid his dues by following Leno, then 59, for 16 years. It even gave Leno a new show at 10 p.m. every weeknight.

But the O'Brien debacle started to seem like part of a generational divide when Leno publicly offered to go back to "Tonight" after his new show flopped. O'Brien's fans took to Twitter and Facebook to announce, "I'm With Coco." Young students held funny demonstrations in the streets, and followed O'Brien on a nationwide tour. 

Also read: Who's the Youngest 'Tonight' Host? Not Fallon. And Oldest Is a Shocker

Leno's silent majority, meanwhile, cast its votes by simply tuning into his show.

ABC saw an opening, and this January moved Jimmy Kimmel up to 11:35 to compete directly with Leno and Letterman. During the "Tonight" feud, Kimmel vocally took O'Brien's side, even belittling Leno on his own "Jay Leno Show."

Kimmel had been predisposed to dislike Leno even before he took up O'Brien's cause: He has idolized Letterman, Leno's rival, for decades. When he welcomed his idol to "Live" last year, he showed him photos of his 18th birthday cake and old license plate, both of which said "L8 Nite" in honor of Letterman's old NBC show.

Since then, Kimmel has helped do what Letterman never could: Drive Leno from the late-night throne.

Also read: Jimmy Kimmel Congratulates New Late Night 'Rival' Jimmy Fallon

NBC decided to replace Leno with Fallon in the hopes that Fallon can stop Kimmel from forming a bond with young viewers that will last until they grow old together.

But Fallon is determined to make Leno feel appreciated. And NBC is trying to do the same by noting that he is going out on top, his famous chin held high.

“We are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was No. 1," Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, said in a statement Wednesday.

The niceties may keep Leno from messily grasping, once again, to keep his old job. But even if he does, his contract is up in fall of 2014. And only time, ratings and public opinion will tell if NBC's latest succession succeeds.