'The Tonight Show' And The Business Of Late Night

After hosting The Tonight Show for two decades, Jay Leno will pass the torch to Jimmy Fallon in February. NPR's Kelly McEvers tals with Matt Belloni, executive editor for The Hollywood Reporter, about the business of late-night talk shows.

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, ''THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO'')

(AUDIENCE CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

JAY LENO: Welcome to ''The Tonight Show.'' Now, folks...

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Next month, a new host will welcome the audience on "The Tonight Show." After two decades of hosting the program, Jay Leno is passing the torch to Jimmy Fallon. Fallon announced NBC's decision to change hosts last spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JIMMY FALLON: There's rumors lately that - but I want to let you guys know that as of today, it's official. Starting in February, I'm going to be hosting "The Tonight Show" here, on NBC.

(AUDIENCE CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

MCEVERS: In tonight's interview with "60 Minutes," Leno says it wasn't his choice, but he gets it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

LENO: You go with the new guy. Makes perfect sense to me. If they said: Look, you're fired. We don't know who we're going to get. We don't know what we're going to put in there, but anybody but you, we just want you out - I would be a little hurt and offended.

MCEVERS: As we head into the last days of Jay, I asked "The Hollywood Reporter's" Matt Belloni about Leno's final lineup.

MATT BELLONI: His final lineup is going to be Billy Crystal, who was actually one of his first guests; and Garth Brooks, who's been on the show many times. He's a Leno favorite. The interesting thing about it is the fact that Leno's going out earlier than he had planned, even. And that was a whole messy transition, to begin with.

MCEVERS: So just remind people again: Why is Jay Leno leaving early, anyway?

BELLONI: NBC has decided that even though Jay Leno is the No. 1 talk show host in broadcast TV, they're going to replace him starting with the Olympics with Jimmy Fallon, who is the upstart. He's, you know, the guy they envisioned being able to do this job for 20 years. So that's what's really fueling this - is Leno may be No. 1 now, but they see the direction that this is going, and they see an opportunity to put Jimmy Fallon into that chair now. And they're going to take that opportunity.

MCEVERS: So what are the theories about what Leno's going to do next?

BELLONI: He has said that he's been approached by everyone under the sun. We know that he has been specifically approached by CNN, to do a show there. Leno has really indicated that he is not going to make any decision, or even think about this, until after his final show.

MCEVERS: So there's been a lot of controversy about the reign of hosts in the late-night kingdom. Why is this market so valued, anyway?

BELLONI: It's interesting. You know, the late night comic landscape is just one of those American things that people talk about because the value of these late-night shows has actually been decreasing over the past few years. "The Tonight Show" used to generate about $150 million in profits. And that's down to about 30- to $40 million a year in profits.

So it's not as lucrative as it once was, but it's just something people talk about. You have these people in your home late at night, and you develop an attachment to them. People care about them.

MCEVERS: I cannot let you get away without asking a question about Sundance. I understand you just got back from the film festival in Utah. There's been a lot of buzz about some films. What are the ones that excited you?

BELLONI: I care about which films sell for distribution because it means that these films are going to be able to be seen by a mass audience. And so far, the ones that have generated the most buzz has been the Zach Braff movie "Wish I Was Here," which is a follow-up to "Garden State," which was a big hit about 10 years ago. That one got a big deal from Focus Features, and it's going to get a release later this year.

Another one is called "Whiplash," which is a drama about drumming. And it's got Miles Teller in it, who's kind of a hot star right now. That one is going to get a release later this year as well.

MCEVERS: What's changed in the 30 years since that festival started?

BELLONI: What's changed - besides everything?

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Really?

BELLONI: I mean, when Sundance started, it was a nothing little gathering in the snow. I mean, Robert Redford jokes that he made it in January to get the Hollywood people out of LA and up to the middle of the freezing weather. But the fact that Sundance is the launch pad for the year-end movies, I think that could never have been imagined when they first started it; the fact that now, if you want a wide audience for an independent, small film, the best shot is to take it to Sundance, try to get a distribution deal, and try to get some marketing muscle behind it. And you'll see that year after year.

MCEVERS: Matt Belloni writes for "The Hollywood Reporter," where he is the executive editor. Matt, thanks for your time today.

BELLONI: Thanks a lot.

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