Jimmy Fallon Tops NBC's List To Replace Conan O'Brien

NBC has targeted Jimmy Fallon to replace Conan O’Brien in 2009, according to people familiar with the talks.

Fallon is NBC’s favorite to take over from O’Brien, who currently hosts Late Night With Conan O’Brien after The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

NBC late-night chief Rick Ludwin says he doesn’t expect to make an announcement until sometime after the first of the year, but he confirmed that Fallon is on the top of the network’s list.

“I think he’d be terrific, and he is at the top of our short list,” Ludwin says.

As reported by B&C in February, Fallon signed a developmental deal with NBC earlier this year, a deal that at the time included the possibility of his replacing O’Brien, who is scheduled to take over Leno’s chair in 2009.

Now NBC has zeroed in on the Saturday Night Live alum as its choice for 12:35 a.m., a slot in which SNL chief Lorne Michaels still has a piece of ownership. Those familiar with NBC’s thinking say the network believes that Fallon’s following O’Brien would make a very compatible two-hour block.

While NBC has not done a pilot or any run-throughs with Fallon, Ludwin seems confident he has seen enough of Fallon’s talents from his SNL stint, which included hosting the “Weekend Update” segment. Fallon also served as a guest host for David Letterman’s Late Show on CBS in 2003.

“These are very tough jobs when you promise comedy as part of the equation, and it’s a grind to do one of these shows,” Ludwin says. “We know him from SNL and saw what he can do on-camera and off-camera, and I think he’d be terrific.”

Fellow SNL alum Tina Fey recently said Fallon would be an ideal fit. “I think it’s a great idea. He’s really funny and loves to talk to people; it must be that Irish charm. Hosting a talk show is so hard, having to do the comedy and the interview skills, but I actually think he’s really well suited for it.”

Locale to be Decided

Still uncertain is where Fallon would host his show. NBC would like The Tonight Show to continue out of Burbank and the 12:35 show to stay in Studio 6A at New York City’s 30 Rock.

But Ludwin says there are those who want Tonight Show to move back to New York, where it began, and thus O’Brien’s move to California “hasn’t been completely nailed down.”

Moving the Tonight Show back to New York would set the stage for a vicious in-town booking war between NBC and CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman for guests.

Ludwin says NBC has to announce its plans by next May’s upfront presentation in New York. The new host will take over in 2009, a transition that will be dictated by when exactly O’Brien replaces Leno—assuming that plan goes ahead.

There remains the possibility that NBC Universal could change its mind and keep the still front-running Leno at 11:35 p.m. Also, should NBC be sold, a new owner might shy away from dropping an established cash cow like Leno.

If NBC keeps Leno at 11:35, it must pay O’Brien a penalty in the neighborhood of $45 million and know he will then jump to another network, most likely ABC or Fox, which wants in on the late-night race.

If NBC sticks with O’Brien, it will probably be Leno who ends up elsewhere. While Leno won’t talk publicly about the matter, he is expected to stay in the late-night game. NBC says it wants to keep him in the family, but insiders see little chance of his staying for anything other than the Tonight Show.

Should Leno—or O’Brien—end up at ABC, it could help the entertainment division finally bump Nightline out of the 11:35 spot. If ABC lands whomever NBC casts off, Jimmy Kimmel might make more sense for Fox’s demographics as the network returns to late night. 

ABC’s female-skewing entertainment line-up and then a Nightline lead-in have not done Kimmel any favors, though exposure on corporate cousin ESPN has been a plus.

Network executives almost unanimously consider Kimmel a swiftly-improving late-night asset who has come into his own recently. A source with knowledge of Fox’s thinking says Kimmel is definitely on the network’s radar screen.