Jim Bell, who has served as showrunner on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for the past year, is stepping down. Gavin Purcell, who recently signed an exclusive overall producing deal with Universal Television, has been named interim showrunner.
Bell is leaving NBC after a tenure that spanned almost three decades and included stints as President, NBC Olympics Production & Programming and executive producer of Today. Purcell was previously a producer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and recently served as executive producer and showrunner on Sarah Silverman’s Emmy-nominated Hulu talk show I Love You America.
The shakeup comes as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon continues to lag behind surging Late Show with Stephen Colbert in the era of President Donald Trump dominated by political humor.
“Last fall, after executive producing a successful Winter Olympics in South Korea and the men’s World Cup tournament in Russia, the company asked me if I would become the executive in charge of production for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon while I was also preparing for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo,” Bell said. “As has been the case for my nearly 30 years at NBC, I said yes to their request, adding only that I would commit for a year and we would review the situation at that time.”
Word is that Bell had been expected to leave The Tonight Show in early 2020. His decision to move up his exit date reportedly caught NBC by surprise, leading to Purcell’s hire on an interim basis. Bell’s departure from NBC where he has spent his entire career to date comes amid fallout from Ronan Farrow’s new book that involves NBC News, Today and its former host Matt Lauer though Bell is not personally implicated.
“The past year with Jimmy and the terrific team at the show has been a blast, and I will always be grateful for this opportunity. But after serious contemplation, I realized I did not want to extend my time at the show,” Bell said. “Those thoughts are part of larger ones I have been having about my career, and what has emerged for me is a strong desire to delve into something new — to build on my experience in news, sports, and entertainment so I can broaden and deepen my leadership role in the content universe. Along with my Olympic colleagues, we have positioned NBC Sports for an incredible Summer Olympics next year, and so I believe the timing is perfect for me to forge a new path. I will always look back on my years at NBC as an extraordinary chapter in my life, and thank the many talented individuals who have joined me in truly meaningful work around the globe. Right now I am looking forward to a great show in Texas.”
Bell will stay through this week, overseeing the Tonight Show telecast from the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. Some of the other highlights from Bell’s tenure on The Tonight Show include a trip to Puerto Rico following the devastation from Hurricane Maria, an homage episode to The Larry Sanders Show, live shows following the Democratic Presidential debates and during fall 2019 Premiere Week, as well as a weekend telecast following NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
“Jim’s imprint at The Tonight Show was substantial and will be long-lasting,” said George Cheeks, Vice Chairman, NBCUniversal Content Studios, and who oversees late night for NBC Entertainment. “With his decades of production expertise, Jim was able to elevate our live telecasts to new heights and took ‘Tonight’ on the road and delivered shows that raised the bar. We wish him nothing but the best moving forward and thank him for his contributions.”
Before joining Tonight Show in October 2018, Bell was President, NBC Olympics Production & Programming, a post he had held since January 2017. He spent seven years (2005-12) as Executive Producer of Today while also juggling Olympic duties before rejoining NBC Sports full-time. He presided over the last stretch of Today morning ratings dominance, which included the controversial ouster of co-host Ann Curry, and successfully launched the fourth hour of the morning news program.
Since Bell joined The Tonight Show last October, NBCUniversal reorganized NBC Sports under Mark Lazarus, Chairman, NBCUniversal Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News. In February, Pete Bevacqua, President of the NBC Sports Group, was given oversight of the group’s entire portfolio, adding Olympics, Production, Operations and other areas to his purview.
“We want to thank Jim for his numerous contributions to our NBC Sports and Olympic broadcasts, particularly since becoming the executive producer starting with London in 2012,” said Mark Lazarus and Pete Bevacqua. “He has been a part of every major sports production during his NBC career, and has led a team of thousands to produce the last four Olympics, helping to bring great success to the world’s biggest sports and cultural event every two years. As President, NBC Olympics Production & Programming, he has overseen the significant increase in our ability to make every Olympic event available live online, as well as production enhancements that have kept our award-winning Olympic broadcasts on the cutting edge of the sports media landscape.”
Alongside his Tonight Show duties, Bell has been working on the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. His duties will now be reassigned.
“Fortunately, we have a large number of experienced and talented people who have worked alongside Jim in the NBC Sports Group, and we will be making decisions about structural changes to the team in the coming weeks,” Lazarus and Bevacqua said.
Before his stint as showrunner on I Love You America, Purcell was Head of Video at Vox Media where he oversaw video production, development and strategy for all Vox Media brands. Purcell served as a producer and writer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where he led all aspects of on-air production in addition to a special focus on interactive elements. His work on Tonight was recognized for its innovative digital efforts with two Emmy wins, for Social TV Experience and Outstanding Interactive Program.