Michaels gains more power

Late-night move solidifies his clout at struggling NBC

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LOS ANGELES -- Jimmy Fallon may have been crowned the new king of late-night TV last week, but he owes a lot to the man behind the throne: Lorne Michaels.

Fans of "Saturday Night Live" will recognize Michaels, the show's creator, as the grumpy paterfamilias lurking in the wings on any given night. The "laser cats" bit from a few years back consisted of a poker-faced Michaels enduring inane pitches from cast members Andy Samberg and Bill Hader and then deadpanning: "Get out of my office."

But that office in Rockefeller Center is now the most critical perch at NBC, where Michaels towers as the last man standing at a last-place network. Michaels discovered Fallon, produces his late-night show and, in a coup that dented L.A.'s showbiz status, engineered a move of the No. 1-rated "Tonight Show" back to Manhattan after a 40-year exodus in Burbank.

"It was weirdly emotionally satisfying, moving 'The Tonight Show' back to its origin in New York City," Michaels said in a phone interview.

This winter, with NBC's prime time sinking beneath the weight of "Smash," "Do No Harm" and other flops green-lighted by entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, "SNL" briefly became the network's highest-rated program, even though it starts at a time when many people are either asleep or out of the house. And if that weren't enough, Michaels has been able to yoke his "SNL" talent stable to lucrative sitcom and movie projects. One result was "30 Rock," Tina Fey's "SNL" spoof that in January wrapped up a 138-episode run.

So it's no wonder the Fallon switch has given Michaels, at 68, more power than ever.

"As the executive producer of possibly 11.5 hours of programming a week on NBC (next year), I think it's safe to say Lorne is about to become the new king of late night," said Warren Littlefield, the producer who served as entertainment president of NBC during its 1990s glory years. (That number of hours assumes that Michaels would also keep stewardship of the 12:35 a.m. slot, although NBC has not announced its plans yet).

The bedrock of Michaels' empire remains "SNL," which during a nearly 40-year run has survived countless cast changes and perennial criticism ("Saturday Night Dead," as detractors prefer to call it) to uncover and promote comic actors who end up defining their generations, including John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell and Fey.

"I don't think that it is just coincidental that so many former 'SNL' players wound up as movie stars and part of historic sitcoms," said Doug Spero, an associate professor of mass communication at Meredith College in North Carolina. "The machine has to be fed and Lorne Michaels has been the assembly line foreman."

But the "Tonight" move puts Michaels on a new and much more competitive level. NBC is struggling to maintain its late-night lead amid intensifying competition.

Some critics argue that Michaels' approach might be too hip for the room -- a rush to the edgy when NBC should be trying to go broad.

"NBC should be careful of letting itself become too identified by the Lorne Michaels' comedy brand," said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University. "A network is much more than that, and any network that will allow itself to be labeled by the 'SNL' / Fallon brand could be headed toward niche status in the eyes of the broader viewing public."