NBC said to preparing to upgrade Fallon to be new 'Tonight Show' host

If it happens, show would move from Los Angeles to New York


LOS ANGELES — NBC is upgrading "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon's studio in New York, a potential new home for "The Tonight Show" if Fallon takes over from Jay Leno, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

A final decision hasn't been made, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. Leno, 62, is under contract until September 2014, and Fallon is the frontrunner to succeed to him, said the person. With 18 months left on Leno's contract, Comcast Corp.'s NBC Universal hasn't begun new talks with "The Tonight Show" host.

"The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" remains late-night's ratings leader, making a change risky for NBC, which has suffered losses in prime time and mornings. NBC also saw a steep drop in viewers in 2009 when it moved Leno to prime time and handed his show to Conan O'Brien. Leno got the show back in 2010 and O'Brien started a competing program on TBS.

Brian Roberts, Comcast's chairman and chief executive officer, was asked about the possible succession during a question-and-answer session at a luncheon in Washington on Thursday.

"I think Jay Leno's fantastic," Roberts said. "There's a lot of people issues and you keep that stuff confidential."

Fallon, 38, could relocate to Burbank, Calif., where "The Tonight Show" is taped now, if he gets the job, the person said. The 45-year-old studio in New York is being expanded to hold a larger audience and for use as a screening room, the person said.

Rebecca Marks, an NBC spokeswoman, confirmed the studio renovation in New York, declining to comment further. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the network had made a commitment to Fallon to take over by late 2014.

Friction with NBC has spilled over into Leno's recent shows, where he has made fun of the network's sagging ratings.

"According to several reports, scientists say they are getting closer and closer to being able to do 'Jurassic Park' style cloning of extinct species," he joked Wednesday night, according to a transcript. "Imagine that. Things that were once thought to be extinct could now be brought back from the dead. So there's hope for NBC. It could turn around."

Fallon has said he would like to eventually host "The Tonight Show," GQ reported in its March issue.

"I'd love it, but it's not on my mind," Fallon told the magazine.

Fallon, who joined NBC's "Saturday Night Live" in 1998, is also producing "Guys with Kids" for the network's prime- time schedule. Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night," told GQ that Fallon would one day inherit the "Tonight Show" and become the next Johnny Carson, who hosted the program for three decades.

"I'm not allowed to say it — yet, but I think there's an inevitability to it," Michaels told the magazine. "He's the closest to Carson that I've seen of this generation."

"The Tonight Show," originally televised from New York when the show began in 1954 with host Steve Allen, is averaging 3.6 million viewers a night since the TV season began in September, according to Nielsen data provided by the networks. CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" is averaging 3.1 million and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" is drawing 2.7 million.

Leno and Kimmel have similar ratings in the younger 18- to-49-year-old demographic that advertisers target, ahead of Letterman.

Fallon's "Late Night" leads talk shows from 12:35 a.m. to 1:35 a.m., averaging 1.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen data. CBS's "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" is drawing 1.5 million.