Jay Leno announces 'Tonight Show' exit

Dustin Senger/U.S. Army

Tonight Show host, Jay Leno, performs a monologue for troops at Fort Carson, CO July 9, 2011. About 1,500 people attended the event at the Special Events Center.

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by Chris Patterson

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, Jay Leno confirmed the rampant reports that he's once again departing "The Tonight Show," presumably for good this time.

He'll wrap up his 22-year run as host in spring 2014, with Jimmy Fallon officially signing on as his replacement.

"Congratulations Jimmy," Leno said. "I hope you're as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you're the old guy. If you need me, I'll be at the garage."

According to a statement from NBC, "As part of the transition, 'The Tonight Show' will be returning to its original home in 30 Rock in New York" from Leno's base of Los Angeles.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the move, saying in a statement "on behalf of all New Yorkers" that he's "pleased to welcome 'The Tonight Show' back to its first home."

When it began in 1954, the "original 'Tonight Show' ushered in the modern era of television," Cuomo continued. "It is only fitting that as 'The Tonight Show' returns to our state, it will be headlined by New York's own native son and resident, Jimmy Fallon."

The expectation that Leno would leave NBC's legendary late-night program has been building recently, and Fallon's appointment isn't surprising in the least. He's had a swift rise to "Tonight's" chair, having hosted "Late Night" for just four years, but Fallon's transition was treated as such a near certainty that both hosts worked the headlines into their nightly routines.

While Fallon initially downplayed the rumors, Leno went after his employer on a regular basis. He's compared NBC executives to snakes, joked about the network's sagging ratings and kidded that the rumored late-night shuffle was like NBC's version of March Madness.

Just two days before the big announcement, Fallon and Leno again made light of the reports with a parody of the song "Tonight" from the musical "West Side Story."

With Leno's contract set to expire in fall 2014, industry observers said the move was only a matter of time.

Leno first exited "Tonight" in 2009 after 17 years as host, passing the torch to Conan O'Brien, who was then the host of "Late Night."

Leno was moved to prime time with his own program, "The Jay Leno Show," in the fall of 2009. But when that brought dismal ratings, NBC decided to put Leno back in charge of "Tonight" at the start of 2010, leaving O'Brien without a job.

The flame-haired comedian eventually moved to TBS to host his own show, "Conan," in the 11 p.m. hour, but the entire scenario generated ill will toward Leno and NBC. (TBS shares a parent company with CNN.)

Yet as the years went on, Leno has proved to be resilient. As NBC's prime-time ratings suffered, Leno's "Tonight Show" was still able to rise above the rest in its time slot. At the end of March, "The Tonight Show" hit a seven-week high in total viewers, with 3.52 million watching.

However, NBC was said to be concerned about losing younger viewers to ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, whose "Jimmy Kimmel Live" was moved up to compete with Leno and David Letterman's "Late Show" at the beginning of 2013.

"The more time Jimmy Kimmel is in that slot, the more the young audience goes that way, the harder it is for (Fallon) to keep that audience," one source familiar with the network's thought process told The Hollywood Reporter in March.

At 62 years old, Leno represents a more traditional form of hosting, as he's known for his "Las Vegas-style comedy," said the New York Times. Fallon, 38, regularly incorporates the Web and social media into his act, offering "a more contemporary and varied brand of entertainment," the Times said.

This changing of the guard is one of the most closely watched exercises in pop culture, especially as it takes place at one of TV's mainstay productions. Even with its decline in ratings over the years, it remains a solid profit center for NBC, making between $25 million and $40 million for the network, according to The New York Times.

Although it's been on the air for almost 60 years, "The Tonight Show" has had just a handful of regular hosts: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Leno and O'Brien.

"The Tonight Show" isn't what it was during the long tenure of Carson, who hosted the show from 1962 until 1992. In those three-network times, Carson dominated late-night TV like nobody before or since. He dominated the ratings and routinely sat down challengers like so many duck targets at a carnival shooting gallery. Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak -- they all tried to dethrone the king, and they all came up short.

Carson sat behind "Tonight's" desk for 30 years before passing the torch to Leno, and "Johnny" is still the model against whom all are measured.

Interestingly enough, "Late Night" producer Lorne Michaels, who's now executive producer of "The Tonight Show," has called Fallon "the closest thing" this generation has to Carson. It appears it's now time for Fallon to show and prove.

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