It’s setting up as one of the bigger TV power struggles of the 21st century so far.
One man in the prime of his career being forced out for the quirky new
blood of a former sitcom writer who turned awkwardness and
self-loathing into a cool factor.
Then there is the really young blood waiting in the wings, ready to pounce before the corpse is even cold.
Get ready for Late Night Wars II: The Emperor Dies.
In one of the worst-kept secrets in the TV industry, NBC wants Jimmy Fallon to take over “Late Night”
NBC in 2009, replacing Conan O’Brien, who NBC announced will be taking
over for Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” when Leno “retires” then.
NBC announced the Conan-Leno deal two years ago to the delight of
low-self-esteem nerds everywhere — myself included, a big enough fan
that I checked out Conan’s show live two years ago in New York City.
At the time, it was thought NBC made the announcement four years early
to avoid one of the most embarrassing behind-the-scenes power struggles
in TV history, when Leno and Dave Letterman famously went at it to take
over for Johnny Carson. The two one-time friends still haven’t spoken
since Leno got the nod.
Now, Leno, since taking over in 1993, started hinting at retirement,
going out on top when ratings for “The Tonight Show” are at their
highest point in years. NBC pounced and possibly overreacted by giving
O’Brien the keys to the “Tonight Show” car. Scuttlebutt is Leno wasn’t
really ready to retire and now may be making a push to keep his job
past the 2009 deadline.
Those must have been more than just rumors, as NBC sent a strong
message by officially announcing former SNL-er Fallon as O’Brien’s
Not quite sure why this was such big news, since Fallon himself
admitted on Stern about six weeks ago that he had a contract with NBC
to not take another late-night gig. NBC was paying Fallon not to work,
and that sure wasn’t going to go on forever.
Perhaps Fallon let it “slip” about his contract to force NBC to make a
move — it’s a pretty embarrassing situation when you are paying someone
not to work. Perhaps the O’Brien camp was in cahoots with the Fallon
camp to force NBC’s hand when it got more and more evident that Leno
didn’t want to retire.
Then again, perhaps it is all a coincidence. Maybe, just maybe, all of this is happening without anyone’s help.
If you believe that, I’ll recommend you check out “The Late Shift,” the
supposedly true story of the fight between Letterman and Leno for
Carson’s spot. After that story, anything is possible when you are
talking about an American television institution.