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Leno Exit May Spur Late-Night Musical Chairs


In the world of late-night television, there's a slow-motion game of musical chairs going on. Yesterday at the big Annual Industry Presentation for TV critics in Los Angeles, NBC announced the exact date that Jay Leno will step down as host of "The Tonight Show," it will be May 29 of next year. That announcement came with some high jinks from the audience as we'll hear in a moment.

NPR's Kim Masters was at the NBC announcement. She joins us now. And Kim, the idea is Leno is out, Conan O'Brien takes his slot. Jimmy Fallon takes Conan O'Brien's slot. And then the big question is, what's next for Jay Leno?

KIM MASTERS: Well, Jay Leno will be under contract to NBC still for a few more months. So at first, not much, but the buzz all through the TV critics gathering this week and before was that Leno will end up at ABC at 11:30, going head-to-head against Conan O'Brien and David Letterman to prove that he is indeed the king of late night.

BLOCK: Now, there is a show on ABC at 11:30, it's called "Nightline," what would happen to "Nightline" then?

MASTERS: I think they would get rid of "Nightline" in a heartbeat. They were willing to do it for David Letterman, that's what everybody's speculating about. That would require them, however, to move Jimmy Kimmel back. He now comes on at 12:05 and he would be moved to 12:35. And since hosts generally like to move forward, that would be considered a big question about the fate of Jimmy Kimmel.

BLOCK: Now, Jimmy Kimmel himself made an appearance in the audience when ABC made its presentation to TV critics. What happened there?

MASTERS: Well, Jimmy Kimmel showed up in a baseball cap very anonymously among the critics. He was talking to Steve McPherson, the head of ABC Entertainment, and he was pretending to be his - some made-up reporter from a paper called The Sarasota Star-Herald Tribune.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: And he was asking if it isn't illegal for them to even think about Jay Leno when Jay Leno is still under contract to NBC for the next few months.

Mr. JIMMY KIMMEL (Host, "Jimmy Kimmel Live"): Wouldn't that be illegal? Couldn't you go to jail for that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEPHEN McPHERSON (President, ABC Entertainment): It's possible. But, you know, I - do you have any other questions?

Mr. KIMMEL: How do you keep your hair so nice?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McPHERSON: Can we get this guy out of here? Obviously, the Leno situation, we figured, would be…

Mr. KIMMEL: Are you at all afraid that if you do replace Jimmy Kimmel he might do something crazy to you or your car?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McPHERSON: Yes, actually, very afraid.

Mr. KIMMEL: I'll be out in the parking lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McPHERSON: Thanks, Jimmy.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: A big laugh there for Jimmy Kimmel. But then, yesterday, you had this: Jay Leno showing up incognito in the audience at the NBC presentation asking questions at the executives.

MASTERS: Yes. He was - he's wearing a very strange disguise, sort of a bald guy with a beard. And it was very strange when he started to talk because you looked around and you didn't see Jay Leno, and you were wondering, is this Jay Leno or is it a guy who's been hired to sound like Jay Leno to play off of the Jimmy Kimmel gag? And this is what Jay had to say.

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show"): Is it true that you've offered Leno a fifth hour on the "Today Show?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEN SILVERMAN (Co-Chairman, NBC Entertainment): That's a great idea, actually. That really is a…

Mr. MARC GRABOFF (Co-Chairman, NBC Entertainment): Fifth hour?

Mr. SILVERMAN: …good idea.

Mr. LENO: Nah, it's a crappy idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Not such a big laugh and it sounds like NBC executives are sort of caught off guard here?

MASTERS: Yeah. I mean, they knew the gag was there, but I think it wasn't playing that well because first of all, the critics were confused, and second of all, it's a much more bitter situation with Leno. A lot of people are questioning that NBC would even consider letting him go with the decision they made several years ago and they seem to be sticking to it.

You know, NBC is saying they would love to keep Leno around in some capacity but nobody can figure out what they could possibly offer him since he loves to be in that 11:30 slot. And there isn't anything NBC can offer him. He has a - he seems to be headed out the door. So, yeah, that was kind of an awkward situation.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Kim Masters talking about the revolving chairs on late night television. Kim, thanks so much.

MASTERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.