Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon is getting the last late-night laugh. The comedian will take over hosting duties of The Tonight Show, the late-night television programme, with NBCUniversal announcing on Wednesday that Jay Leno would end his more than two-decade run next spring.

The announcement followed weeks of speculation about one of the most storied US television franchises and marks one of Comcast’s biggest programming decisions since it took control of the US broadcaster. As part of the move, the show will return to its original home in New York and be produced by Lorne Michaels, the Emmy Award winner behind Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.

“We are purposefully making this change when Jay is #1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was #1,” said Steve Burke, chief executive of NBCUniversal. “Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent and this is his time.”

While a small economic component of Comcast’s vast media conglomerate, The Tonight Show attracts enormous attention and has great symbolic importance. The saga over the change of host has been front-page news in the US.

It is also not the only drama making waves at NBC, the fourth-ranked US broadcast network by viewers. It is facing ratings challenges at its Today programme, which was recently dethroned as America’s most watched morning news show.

Facing declines in audiences and ad dollars tied to The Tonight Show, NBC is seeking a fresh face with digital prowess in Mr Fallon. While the show ranks ahead of rivals ABC and CBS in the late show time-period, attracting 3.4m viewers, its audiences are down from 4.6m five years ago, according to Nielsen. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno generated $146.1m in ad spending in 2012, down more than 40 per cent from $255.9m in 2007, according to WPP’s Kantar Media.

Mr Fallon, 38, will become the sixth comedian to host the late-night talk show since it launched in 1954. He started his television career fifteen years ago on Saturday Night Live, where he became known for his impressions and musical and comedy sketches. In 2009, he started hosting a programme at the 12.35am slot following The Tonight Show, called Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

The programme is especially strong with younger audiences, attracting 1m viewers 18 to 49 years old, according to Nielsen.

Mr Fallon has become a web hit, releasing a series of viral videos. A video featuring dance moves from First Lady Michelle Obama, for instance, has attracted more than 15m views. On Twitter, Mr Fallon regularly posts messages to more than 8.3m followers and describes himself in his bio as an astrophysicist.

“I’m really excited to host a show that starts today instead of tomorrow.” Mr Fallon said in a statement.

NBC said that it would use the forthcoming Winter Olympics to help promote the transition.

Mr Leno, 62, will end his 22 years hosting the programme next spring. It is not the first time NBC has shifted his position. In 2010, it moved his late-night show to a primetime 10pm slot with The Jay Leno Show as the centrepiece of its strategy to reinvent the broadcast network.

He returned eight months later, and since then the show consistently has ranked at the top.

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