LOS ANGELES - As Jay Leno lobs potshots at ratings-challenged NBC in his "Tonight" monologues, speculation is swirling the network is taking steps to replace the host with Jimmy Fallon next year and move the show from Burbank to New York.
NBC confirmed Wednesday that it's creating a new studio for Fallon in New York, where he hosts "Late Night." But the network did not comment on a report that the digs at its Rockefeller Plaza headquarters may become home to a transplanted, Fallon-hosted "Tonight."
The New York Times reported the plan in a Wednesday story, citing unidentified network executives. The Hollywood Reporter had a March 1 report about a Fallon-Leno switch, which was denied by the network.
Looming over NBC is its messy, failed effort to replace Leno with Conan O'Brien, which ended in 2010 with Leno regaining "Tonight" and NBC losing O'Brien - who got a $45 million exit deal - to TBS. Leno's current "Tonight" contract expires in September 2014.
That occurred under a different regime, before NBCUniversal was taken over by Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., which has a reputation for discipline. While NBC dithered and backtracked on its "Tonight" succession plan involving O'Brien, Comcast is likely to be more decisive.
"I don't know if it's possible to have a less orderly transition than Leno-O'Brien," said analyst Brad Adgate of media-buying firm Horizon Media.
Fallon contacted Leno in an effort to help smooth the potential switch, according to a Hollywood Reporter story Wednesday.
The latest roiling of the late-night waters began in January when ABC moved "Jimmy Kimmel Live" back to 11:35 p.m. Eastern to offer direct competition to Leno and CBS' David Letterman.
With the potential for Kimmel, 45, to draw advertiser-favored young viewers away from Leno (62) and Letterman (65), it's unsurprising that their networks might step up their succession planning.
At 38, Fallon is the youngest of the pack.
Leno, who took over "Tonight" from Johnny Carson in 1992, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. But he might be taking advantage of other ways to communicate - the "Tonight" stage and its audience of millions.
The timing of Leno's latest jabs at NBC seemed to make the network particularly uncomfortable. They reportedly asked him to stop; he hasn't.