Lookin' for the Leno Leaker

Jaime J. Weinman on the Tonight Show wars

You don’t know how much fun it is to see the Tonight Show wars starting up again. I know that it’s a legacy franchise that is more talked about than watched – remember back in 2010, when so many Conan supporters never watched him until they knew he was leaving – but the position of Tonight host still carries a certain prestige and recognition, and nothing gets people more interested in TV inside-baseball stuff. The best part is, once people start leaking Tonight rumours to the press, more and more rumours are sure to follow; it’s a snowball effect. So the earlier leaks about a plan to replace Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon in 2014 were followed by yesterday’s Bill Carter article, where his sources tell him that Fallon is going to move The Tonight Show back to New York for the first time since the early years of Johnny Carson.

The leak is, in part, meant to demonstrate the depth of commitment NBC has to the move: if they’re working on a new studio in New York, as Carter is informed, then they must really mean business – though on the other hand, they built a big new studio for Conan O’Brien, and look how that turned out. Still, the one thing about moving the show to New York is that it would permanently divorce it from the Leno years, in a way that didn’t happen when O’Brien moved from New York to Los Angeles. Leno is famous for disliking New York (Carter’s sources have claimed that he thinks of New York as Letterman’s town, and hasn’t been able to perform at his best there since the days when he was on the Letterman show). You could cynically say that Fallon has to stay in New York to prevent Leno from following him there. Also, staying in New York might enable Lorne Michaels, Fallon’s patron, mentor and producer, to have more of an active role in the new show; Michaels was not allowed to produce O’Brien’s Tonight Show.

What these leaks always bring up is: who’s doing the leaking, and why? When Bob Greenblatt, head of NBC, wrote angry emails to Leno chiding him for making fun of the network’s awful ratings, it immediately leaked to Carter. It was widely believed, as Joe Flint notes at the Los Angeles Times, that the people leaking this information were either in Leno’s camp or executives who support Leno (or don’t like Greenblatt). And Flint suggests something else, which I’ve heard in other places: that maybe it was the Leno camp that leaked the initial rumours about Fallon being groomed as the new host, “just to put the network brass on the defense.”

Because late night fascinates the media so much (me included) and because late-night hosting has so much politics involved with it – all late night hosts have to be good at performing but also have at least some command of the mechanics of producing and wooing the network executives – these controversies always play out in terms of media leaks: everyone leaks strategically, and the only question is which leak benefits which team. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Take the story about NBC building the new studio for Fallon. This could be seen as a leak that benefits Leno, by making it seem like the network is trying to push him out despite his consistently good ratings. It also helps counteract the big reason he might be pushed out: he costs a lot more than Fallon will at first. But, this story implies, if Comcast cares so much about saving money, why are they working on a move that will cost them huge amounts of money in construction and promotion?

But Rick Ellis pointed out to me that it could be a Team Fallon leak, because this story also puts pressure on NBC in Fallon’s direction: the more stories about NBC’s commitment to Fallon, the more they might feel pressure to live up to the commitment that everyone’s writing about. You could certainly understand if Fallon’s supporters are afraid that the whole thing will fall apart before he gets the show. Or even after.

Eventually Carter will compile all this into another book about late night, and we may get a better idea of who did the strategic leaking. But until the network officially announces anything, we sort of just have to sit back and wonder: who does this news benefit? And sometimes, as with a lot of gossip, we’ll find it could theoretically benefit either side. It all depends on how the targets – the press, the NBC management, and their bosses at Comcast – wind up reacting to the leaks.