Forget about the Tonight Show being an NBC tradition. Forget about Johnny and Steve Allen and everyone who has had their career launched there. For a moment, think of the Tonight Show as what it is for NBC, an incredible cash cow.
I have read many estimates of NBC’s profit from the Tonight Show. The prevailing wisdom is somewhere between $75-100,000,000 per year. That’s an unbelievable number, probably the most profitable program NBC runs – possibly more profitable than prime time.
That’s why today’s announcement concerning the Tonight Show is so strange. NBC consistently beats CBS in late night, yet in five years, Conan O’Brien will replace Jay Leno as the Tonight Show’s host.
I can’t think of an announcement NBC could have made that would be more surprising.
It just seems out of character that Jay Leno, a workaholic, devoted to performing, would do this on his own. It’s possible Conan put pressure on NBC – after all the CBS late night show is searching for a host and they don’t want to lose him. But how could NBC ask Jay to go?
None of it makes any sense to me. But now we have five years of hearing the ‘inside story’ and allowing egos to build and possibly boil over.