It is a sign of the times that the headline is not "Conan O'Brien Takes Over Tonight." The days when late-night television garnered wide attention have been scarce since its last true royalty, Johnny Carson, abdicated his throne in 1992 for the pretender Leno.
That Jay figures in the story at all is a fascinating saga, if you happen to be a TV geek, which I reckon I am. I came by it honestly, sneaking out of bed to watch Carson monologues back when Channel 13 news went off at 10:15 and Tonight originated from New York City for an hour and 45 minutes each weeknight. I had precociously spotted Johnny Carson's flair while he was hosting a humdrum game show for ABC called Who Do You Trust? Just a kid, I could already detect his star quality, even in black-and-white; in a medium full of suits off the rack, Carson was custom tailoring.
At that time, I was unaware of Tonight's pedigree, but the late-night franchise traces its ancestry to TV's golden age, starting on NBC in 1954 with Steve Allen, today unremembered but an indubitable genius, behind the desk. In its 59 year run, Leno has been only the fourth permanent host of the program, with Jack Paar covering the five-year interregnum between Allen and Carson. (Some historians include in the line the legendary Ernie Kovacs, who covered many of Allen's shifts, and the less legendary Jack Lescoulie, who hosted a transitional project called Tonight! America After Dark in the timeslot, but I like my tidy version better.)
Once other networks discovered what a cash machine a late-night talk show could be - TNS Media Intelligence estimates that Tonight currently grosses $926,000 a night for NBC - they got into the game for their cut. Starting with Les Crane on ABC in 1964, a glittering array of hopefuls has tried and failed to push Tonight out of America's predilections: Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers, Dennis Miller, Arsenio Hall, Merv Griffin, Chevy Chase, Whoopi Goldberg and many others.
Suddenly, in 1993, there were two. Though heir apparent to Carson, David Letterman, who hosted a later late-night show for NBC, appropriately entitled Late Night, was shunted aside during an intra-network political struggle marvelously recounted in Bill Carter's book The Late Shift (required reading for any would-be TV geek).
Letterman jumped to CBS to become host of The Late Show in August 1993, carrying with him the best wishes of America's TV critics. NBC's decision to replace Carson with Jay Leno had been greeted with a lack of delirium that might have accompanied Ace of Base being chosen for the Super Bowl halftime show.
Letterman was perceived as a conceptualizer, an urbane student of television verities with Carson's heartland touch. Leno? Though a recurring guest host on Tonight, he was considered hardly more than a journeyman stand-up comedian, brown shoes to Carson's tuxedo.
Hampered by his agent (Helen Kushnick, who tried to produce the show) and by general expectations, Leno underperformed in the first few months of his tenancy at Tonight. Initially Letterman got the buzz and the ratings, but Leno, no stranger to struggle, was undaunted in his efforts to get America to like him.
The nation decided in his favor in 1995, after Hugh Grant - remember him? - chose Tonight for his first TV appearance following arrest for lewd conduct with a hooker. Leno defused the tension with his opening question, "What were you thinking?", which was just what anyone in the viewing audience might have asked. The ratings pendulum swung Jay's way and has continued so.
However, it doesn't mean as much anymore. TV's decentralization and the array of non-broadcast entertainment options available to night owls have diluted the strength of Tonight's numbers, an audience currently numbered in the fives of millions.
That won't matter to Jay, since he's moving to prime time this fall. In a scheduling stunt reminiscent of that aforementioned golden age, NBC's The Jay Leno Show will air every night at 9 p.m. on Channel 13. He doesn't need the money (I am told on good authority that Jay banked his Tonight Show salary and lived off the numerous stand-up gigs he performed around the country after taping the nightly show in California) but Leno seems to enjoy the challenge. "I'm half-Scottish and we die in the mine," he told a press conference earlier this month. "We like to work."
His'll be cut out for him. In one fell timeslot change, Jay Leno becomes about one-fourth of the prime time programming of the National Broadcasting Company in September, with all of the corporate pressure and no guarantee that the audience loving him now at 10:30 will remember to tune him in 90 minutes earlier in the fall.
However, the king of late night TV reporting, Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star, is sanguine about his prospects. When the story broke in December, Aaron praised Leno as a solid lead-in for local newscasts and even suggested an uptick in ratings, noting that more TV sets are on at the earlier hour: "If you extrapolate, it's not hard to imagine Leno getting 1.2 to 1.4 million viewers a night just based on TV usage, and that's not even including the suddenly solid lead-ins NBC will deliver Leno with shows like SVU."
Numbers, numbers. Here's another: 50 million people watched Johnny's last Tonight Show in 1992. Well, Jay was no Johnny, and Conan is no Jay. It's evolution, TV-style, and about the only thing of which one can be certain is that as long as there are blank screens and broadcast content, jokes to crack and movies to plug, there will always be somebody sitting behind a desk at 10:30 weeknights with something for you to watch.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com