After weeks of poorly contained leaks and a public airing of grievances, NBC on Wednesday made it official, confirming that Jimmy Fallon will succeed Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show.
Leno will part ways with NBC in spring 2014, a few months before his current contract with the network expires. A loyal soldier, Leno last fall agreed to a 50 percent pay cut, reducing his annual salary to $15 million. The voluntary reduction in his take-home pay helped save dozens of Tonight Show jobs.
“Congratulations Jimmy,” Leno said in a statement released this afternoon. “I hope you’re as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you’re the old guy. If you need me, I’ll be at the garage.”
Fallon’s shift to the 11:35 p.m. time slot will coincide with an even more comprehensive move, as The Tonight Show will return to its original home at 30 Rockefeller Plaza after a 42-year stint in Burbank, Calif. Saturday Night Live impresario Lorne Michaels will executive produce the New York-based late-night show.
While a replacement host for Fallon’s current show, Late Night, has not been identified, reports peg SNL vet Seth Meyers as a likely successor. A formal announcement is expected to be made soon.
“We are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was No. 1,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, by way of announcing the decision. “Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent and this is his time. I’m thrilled he will become the sixth host of The Tonight Show at exactly the right moment, in conjunction with our coverage of next year’s Winter Olympic Games.”
While Tonight has maintained the upper hand over rivals Late Night With David Letterman and the recently relocated Jimmy Kimmel Live, the erosion of live broadcast viewership has taken its inevitable toll on the show's ad sales performance. According to Kantar Media estimates, revenue has dropped 43 percent in the last half-decade, falling from $255.9 million in 2007 to $146.1 million last year.
During the current season, Tonight is averaging 3.5 million viewers and a 0.8 rating in the 18-49 demo. That represents a loss of half the show’s GRPs since 2007, when Leno averaged a 1.6 in the demo.
But for the eight-month period during the 2009-10 season when Leno moved to NBC’s 10 p.m. time slot and Conan O’Brien took over behind the desk, the 62-year-old comic has hosted The Tonight Show continuously since Johnny Carson stepped down in May 1992.
While Leno was reportedly incensed with how NBC execs handled the transition, he and Fallon never demonstrated any animus toward one another. Earlier this week, the two hosts addressed the rumors head on, teaming up in a duet of the West Side Story song, “Tonight.”