The last time the network tried that, it was a spectacular failure for pretty much everyone involved. Leno was still riding high with “The Tonight Show” in 2009, and scared he’d bolt to another network, NBC undermined Conan O’Brien and torpedoed its 10 o’clock timeslot with “The Jay Leno Show.”
Leno has been fine since returning to “Tonight” in 2010, but the show is no longer the dominant player in late night, and ABC’s move of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to 11:35 p.m. has made it a three-way race.
During February sweeps, “Tonight” (3.5 million viewers) led CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” (3.3 million) and “JKL” (2.5 million) in total audience. It was also in front in the adults 18-49 demographic, but not by much — all three shows were within about 100,000 viewers of each other in the demo.
So maybe it’s time to shake things up a little with the next “Tonight” host. Fortunately, there’s someone available who knows her way around the network, and just happens to be a few months into a four-year deal with NBC Universal: Tina Fey.
Fey hosting “The Tonight Show” would be historic, in that she’d be the first woman fronting the show and only the second female ever to host a network late-night show. (Joan Rivers hosted the ill-fated “Late Show” in the very early days of FOX after several years as Johnny Carson‘s permanent guest host on “Tonight.”)
More important, though, Fey is funny. It’s easy to imagine her killing a monologue at the top of the show — the woman knows how to write and deliver a joke, as she’s proven for the past decade-plus on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock.” She could also jolt some life into the show’s comedy segments, which after 20 years of “Jaywalking” and “Headlines” are pretty stale. And she’s been a talk-show guest enough to figure out the host banter fairly quickly.
None of that is intended as a slight to Fallon, Fey’s former “Weekend Update” co-anchor. “Late Night” enjoys a small ratings lead over “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” on CBS and “Nightline” on ABC, and Fallon makes very good late-night TV — loose, easygoing and willing to experiment with how a host and guest interact.
All of which is an argument to keep Fallon at “Late Night” come 2014, or whenever Leno (who turns 63 in April) decides to hang it up. Fallon can keep doing his thing without worrying about having to tailor the show (i.e., abandon some of the “Late Night” audience’s favorite bits) for the bigger audience available at 11:35.
“The Tonight Show” as a franchise is bigger than any of its hosts, and late-night is among the few areas working reasonably well for NBC at the moment. Thinking just a little bit outside the box with Fey, though, could give the 59-year-old institution a fresh life heading into the future.