NEW YORK - Why couldn't NBC just leave well enough alone?
But, no, word leaked last week that "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon will unseat Jay Leno as the new host of the "Tonight" show.
This change (which, mind you, NBC hasn't confirmed) isn't likely to stop the world in its tracks. Still, the prospect of another round of talk-show turbulence has everybody talking, and the questions it raises could keep a viewer awake long past Fallon's current 12:30 a.m. time slot.
- The biggest question: Why do we care?
Because the late-night follies of television executives are often funnier than TV's intended entertainment. Name an NBC program with more laughs, intrigue, double-dealing and disgrace than when the network moved Jay Leno to prime time and handed Conan O'Brien the "Tonight" show, then reversed itself several months later, bringing back Leno and losing Conan (along with his $45 million exit payment). These days NBC's prime time is in shambles. Bungling at "Today" ended NBC's morning dominance. Can NBC go three-for-three by screwing with its late-night lineup?
- What will it mean to have the "Tonight" show back in New York?
Count on a more intense booking war for CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" with a new player in town. Meanwhile, it should be a blow to civic pride in Los Angeles, where Johnny Carson relocated in 1972 because he preferred living there to Manhattan. But it may help ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," CBS' "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" and TBS' "Conan" book top-level guests for their shows. And it suggests NBC may have learned a bitter lesson from uprooting O'Brien to the West Coast in 2009, maybe now concluding it's wiser to keep Fallon at home in New York where he belongs. On the other hand, if the host and guests are entertaining, viewers (remember them?) don't really care if the show beams from New York or Jupiter.
- Why would NBC be so hasty saying farewell to Leno, the 11:30 p.m. champ for most of two decades who continues to command a larger audience than anyone else in late night?
Because Leno, at age 62, is nearing shuffleboard status and has a contract expiring next year. Fallon is a youthful 38, also with a contract expiring. NBC doesn't want to lose him to a rival - especially to CBS, where he might serve as a successor to Letterman.
- What about Letterman, who turns 67 next year?
Competing against Fallon and Kimmel, he'll either seem like a venerable elder statesman or just old. And if he takes his leave (and his contract is running out, too), who replaces him? Airing after Letterman, Craig Ferguson is the obvious choice, but whether his skills or appeal would translate to an earlier hour is a mystery. Kind of like with Fallon.
- In a year or two, will the late-night landscape be markedly different from today, with Kimmel, Fallon and Ferguson butting heads at 11:30 p.m.?
Maybe, but that just stirs up more questions. Who replaces Fallon on NBC's 12:30 a.m. show? Who replaces Ferguson? It never ends.
Get ready. The show is about to begin.