NBC Ponders Expanded Tonight Show and Revamped Late Night

TV Guide
Jimmy Fallon | Photo Credits: Lloyd Bishop/NBC

As NBC plans next year's Tonight Show handoff from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, the network is taking a hard look at all of its late night options. That includes a potentially extreme makeover of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon once Fallon departs. The network has also given serious consideration to expanding The Tonight Show back to 90 minutes under Fallon, insiders confirm. Such an expansion might have led to a much smaller, 30 minute Late Night. But sources say the 90-minute Tonight Show idea has now been tabled.

Meanwhile,as Fallon shifts to the 11:35/10:35c timeslot next spring, Saturday Night Live head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers remains the front runner to take over the Late Night hosting gig. NBC is expected to name its new Late Night host before mid-May.

NBC also plans to keep Late Night in New York, which means it will be produced side-by-side with The Tonight Show. Fallon and Tonight are already set to move into a larger studio inside 30 Rock next year. (That will leave Carson Daly's recently renewed Last Call as the Peacock network's only Los Angeles-based late night program.)

"There is something potentially special about all these shows existing in literally the same place," one insider says of Tonight, Late Night and Saturday Night Live all broadcasting out of NBC's East Coast headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza. "It's the last bastion of NBC. There's really good 12:30 history out of that building."

With both shows in New York, Late Night is expected to de-emphasize multiple celebrity guests in order to prevent booking wars with its Tonight Show sibling. Among the changes, Meyers could adapt "Weekend Update" into a nightly version for Late Night in the vein of The Daily Show, and perhaps interview more newsmakers, politicians and athletes (some of his biggest interests) and fewer stars.

In order to trim costs, Late Night might also be produced in a smaller setting, similar to Bravo's Watch What Happens Live - perhaps with no band, a smaller audience and more reliance on conversation.

Such a differentiation between Tonight and Late Night might also silence critics who have noted that Meyers and Fallon may be a bit too similar - both are around the same age, and both made their name as SNL players and "Weekend Update" anchors.

Meyers "is such a smart guy and knows he'll need to distinguish his show from the others," says one insider. "His writing and improv background are hugely important. He's the most ready to host a show, particularly with this relatively short timeline."

One more thing favoring Meyers for the Late Night gig: Saturday Night Live executive producerLorne Michaels, the late night kingpin who's expected to keep control of Late Night as he adds Tonight to his empire.

But should a Meyers show not pan out, insiders confirm that the alternatives include Bravo executive and Watch What Happens Live hostAndy Cohenor America's Got Talent host Nick Cannon. Cohen intrigues NBC execs because his show is cheap and usually books guests (frequently reality stars) different from The Tonight Show's usual suspects. Meanwhile, Cannon is a workhorse who would bring some much-needed diversity to NBC's late-night programming.

Had NBC decided to go with a 90-minute Tonight Show, adding an extra half-hour to the show wouldn't increase costs much; it would have simply meant longer interviews and perhaps two songs from a musical guest instead of one. There's plenty of precedent: When Steve Allen launched Tonight in 1954, the show aired from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET.

After Jack Paar took over in 1957, Tonight moved up 15 minutes, airing from 11:15 p.m. to 1 a.m., which Johnny Carson then inherited in 1962. By 1967, with most stations airing half-hour late newscasts, Carson pushed the show to an 11:30 start time.

Then, in September 1980, as part of a contractual dispute with NBC, Johnny Carson convinced the network to cut The Tonight Show down from 90 minutes to an hour. Since then, an hour (or half-hour) has been the standard talk show length. The last regular 90-minute late-night talk show was CBS' The Pat Sajak Show, which launched in January 1989 but reverted to an hour by that October.

Meanwhile, as NBC revamps its late night plans next year, oversight of the daypart appears to be changing hands. According to The Hollywood Reporter, New York-based NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert has taken control of NBC late night, which was previously overseen in Los Angeles.

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