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NBC is just asking for trouble 'Tonight'

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

You know a network's struggling when even its problems feel like reruns.

After its 2010 Leno-Conan-back-to-Leno “Tonight Show” fiasco, it's almost inconceivable NBC could bumble its way back into a similar situation. Yet here we are. If as-yet-unconfirmed (but not denied) reports are true, NBC is planning to push Jay Leno out of his “Tonight” job again and replace him with Jimmy Fallon by the fall of 2014 to stop ABC's Jimmy Kimmel from tying up the younger audience.

The move may never happen: The story was obviously leaked as a pre-emptive strike to humiliate NBC out of any such shift, a tactic that very well might work. Even so, the damage has been done, to NBC, to Leno, to “The Tonight Show” and to Fallon, who, despite his apparent innocence, is bound to be seen as a back-stabber/usurper by the loyalist members of Leno's audience. Which is still, by the way, late night's largest, even among younger viewers.

To be sure, it's not always easy to feel sympathy for Leno. Under his Wonder-Bread-bland watch, “Tonight” has gone from comic launchpad to cultural irrelevance, in large part because Leno has been too focused on protecting his own career to use the platform to help anyone else's.

But we're a nation of workers, and many of them are likely to side with the guy who has done everything his company asked of him, including winning his time slot, to be rewarded with a shove in the back. He doesn't deserve to hold the job forever. He does deserve a more graceful exit.

Yet instead, NBC stumbles into another public-relations disaster, and for Fallon, who draws fewer viewers than O'Brien did when he hosted “Late Night” and loses about the same percentage of “Tonight Show” viewers. So why would NBC think he'd do better in that slot than O'Brien when his ratings are lower, his act is similarly pitched toward the later slot's smaller crowd and lower expectations, and his experience and abilities are less?

Fallon comes across as incredibly personable, and he shines in musical-spoof moments. But he still seems ill at ease when it comes to actually interviewing guests or pulling off a monologue, and those remain the primary tasks of a “Tonight” host. Unless NBC decides it doesn't want interviews or monologues — particularly if the host might, horror of horrors, use one to poke fun at the network's ratings woes — and changes the format entirely.

Given everything else NBC has done with “Tonight” this decade, would you really be surprised?

Robert Bianco is the television writer for Gannett News Service.

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