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john doyle

Get out the knives and sharpen them. There's news on the Jay Leno front.

The word came down on the weekend. According to The Hollywood Reporter, NBC is ready to replace Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show and put Jimmy Fallon in his place.

NBC has officially denied the details in the report, but the trade magazine stands behind its story and quotes, anonymously, several NBC insiders as confirming that the network fears losing the 18-49 demographic to Jimmy Kimmel on ABC (who now competes directly with Leno) and wants Fallon in fast, to stop the bleeding.

But Jay Leno never goes quietly. As the Reporter says, "Anyone with even a passing sense of Leno's personality knows that the hard-working comic would be reluctant to leave his perch, especially before his rival at CBS, David Letterman, announces his retirement. Leno and Letterman are both signed through 2014." The idea, according to the sources quoted, is that NBC will announce at the May Upfront that Leno will leave in 2014, with Fallon talking over during the summer next year and formally launching a new, invigorated Tonight Show in fall 2014.

There are two rich veins of approach to this latest possible skirmish in the ongoing late-night wars. First, there's the vastness of Leno hatred. Second, there's NBC, like all networks, desperately trying to save itself.

As always with Leno, negative news about him incites glee. "Time to usurp the throne from Grandpa, Jimmy!" crowed Perez Hilton. The industry's perception of Leno is now one of rock-solid loathing. It's based on this version of events in the late-night wars – Leno booted Johnny Carson to the curb early to get the Tonight Show job; he screwed Letterman, who was Carson's choice; and he undermined Conan O'Brien, who took the job after Leno, with Leno all the while scheming to return to The Tonight Show.

The report that Leno goes and Fallon comes in is utterly plausible. Time has caught up with Leno. Everybody involved is looking to the future and the future means retirement time. If David Letterman retires in 2014, as expected, CBS could and would lure Jimmy Fallon from the 12:35 a.m. slot on NBC to 11:35 p.m. on CBS. Just as CBS managed to attract a bitter, disillusioned Letterman from NBC to a new 11:35 show to compete with Leno in 1993.

Leno does reasonably well for NBC now, but he's a codger-magnet. Younger viewers are watching The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. And Fallon, for all his fresh-faced boyishness, has heft. His recent adventures with Michelle Obama on his show went viral in a manner that Leno never does – a YouTube clip of Obama dancing on Fallon's show has 14 million views.

But more important perhaps for NBC is its need to avert a perceived complete slide toward oblivion. There are four major networks in the U.S. market and for the recent February sweeps period NBC slid not into fourth place but into fifth – it actually had fewer viewers than the Spanish-language Univision channel. There were more people watching the talent shows and telenovelas on Univision than watching the hyped dramas and sitcoms on NBC. It's a mortifying predicament for NBC.

To put the network's failings in further perspective, it is getting murdered in the ratings by cable series. Last Wednesday, almost nine million people in the United States watched the opening episode of the third season of the laid-back redneck reverie Duck Dynasty on A&E. As The Washington Post pointed out, "That's a bigger crowd than achieved by any of NBC's prime-time shows on any night last week. NBC's most-watched series, Chicago Fire, averaged 6.5 million viewers." Ouch and double ouch.

While the knives are always out for Leno, this isn't just a late-night war. NBC needs a hit, any kind of hit. Pronto.

All times ET. Check local listings.