The biggest player in the latest battle for late-night television isn’t Jimmy Fallon, Jay Leno, David Letterman or Seth Meyers. It’s Canadian Lorne Michaels, who is poised to become the most powerful man in programming the wee hours on NBC.
This little factoid was brought to light most recently by Bill Carter, TV critic for The New York Times and author of The Late Shift, a book recounting Leno and Letterman’s battle to take over The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson announced he was leaving. Carter knows his late-night stuff, and a recent Times column and podcast chat with The BS Report’s Bill Simmons laid out Michaels’ path to power.
Everyone knows that Fallon will take over for Leno in Spring 2014 and that The Tonight Show will move back to New York City, which it called home until Carson moved the program to Burbank, Calif., in 1972. A studio is being built in 30 Rockefeller Center for The Tonight Show, Fallon is in place and The Roots will stick around as his band. Michaels, who is Fallon’s executive producer on Late Night, will assume that same role on The Tonight Show.
Apparently, Michaels will remain the executive producer on Late Night too. Add to that his baby, Saturday Night Live, and Michaels owns NBC’s late-night schedule.
No big deal, you say? Take into account, as Carter did, that SNL was the Peacock’s lone ratings winner from January to March. Let that sink in. A Saturday night program broadcast from 11:30 p.m. until 1 a.m. was the most popular program on NBC. Yes, it shows how weak NBC has become, but it also shows the strength of the SNL brand. Stars such as Justin Timberlake are scrambling to appear on SNL, putting it and Michaels in strong stead with Hollywood.
With SNL and The Tonight Show accounted for, that just leaves the empty hosting seat on Late Night. The one name being bandied about most is SNL head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers. Carter says he’s the most likely fit, but whoever the host, the show could trade New York City for Los Angeles. It doesn’t make sense to have so many programs on the east coast and leave Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel all alone on the out west.
Those who decry Meyers as an odd fit for Late Night should remember that was the common refrain when Fallon was named head of the post-Tonight Show spot. Over the past four years, Fallon has proved to be an fitting choice, able to interview guests and come up with inventive, notable bits that become YouTube sensations.
Michaels will likely have the same success with whomever he chooses to sit in the Late Night hosting chair. And being in control of almost 12 hours of weekly television will make him a powerful man indeed.