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Late-Night TV Wars Capture Cultural Snapshot

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Full disclosure: I am a child of the Johnny Carson era. That means I grew up with the sound of Johnny’s “Tonight Show” monologues in my ears, his sense of humor helping to shape my own.


It also means that when I talk about this, I endure the rolling eyes of anyone too young to remember his era, which ended with a May 1992 farewell.

We now see the end of the Jay Leno era on that show, as the news solidifies that he will be succeeded by Jimmy Fallon early next year.

Fallon, who has followed Leno’s show for four years, will duke it out with the freshly rescheduled Jimmy Kimmel, moved up an hour by ABC earlier this year. CBS would like us to remember that it will continue to offer at that time the venerable David Letterman, who has now done a late-night show for longer than Carson did.

Any game of TV dominoes reveals what the networks think of the nation’s sensibilities at the time. So what are we to learn from the radical shifts about to befall the bedtime viewing landscape?

First, it all seems to be a quest for the “younger viewer.” What is that, exactly? Younger than whom?

I’m 55, and I think Fallon and Kimmel are both very funny. Leno has grown stale for me, but so has the supposedly hipper Letterman.

I was also a fan of the 16 years Conan O’Brien spent following Leno on NBC. I celebrated his ascent to the “Tonight Show” throne in 2009.

All six months of it.

Conan doing “Tonight” was not a ratings hit, and heaven knows, neither was NBC’s genius decision to cram Jay Leno into the last hour of prime time. The inevitable carnage sent Conan packing to TBS, where he continues to be funny in near-obscurity, and Leno back to his “Tonight” show stage for a few final years.


The NBC decision to “go young” with Fallon must drive Conan nuts. There he was, with far more youthful, edgy humor cred than Fallon may ever have, banished to basic cable. Now, Fallon gets one of the most venerated titles in TV history.

None of this is to speak ill of Fallon, who has surprised me greatly. When he was announced as NBC’s successor to Conan, I remember joking that Chris Kattan must have been unavailable.

But Fallon has proven to be far more than just a worthy “Saturday Night Live” alumnus. While his interview skills need honing, his prepared bits are among the best in the genre, boosted by his uncanny gift of mimicry.

Fallon will host from New York, meaning all three major network shows will have an east-coast flavor.

Leno’s California roost provided a more middle-America, mainstream comic vibe. Leno is no conservative, but can anyone imagine Fallon, Kimmel or Letterman joking as Leno did this week that AP will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant,” choosing instead “undocumented Democrat?”

Maybe the networks presume that the 50-plus audience just isn’t consuming these late-night shows any more. But who is? They do not seem to show up on the radar of Generation-Y millennials.

But even at mitigated viewer levels, there are millions of people, and thus millions of dollars, up for grabs in the ratings race about to unfold after our late local news.

As for Leno, there is a natural destination for him if it can be worked out: Fox.

Maybe they are still gun-shy after the unmitigated disaster of “The Chevy Chase Show” 20 years ago. But here is their chance to uniquely offer a show tailored to the comic sensibilities of people born before the moon landings.


Fallon and Kimmel will do just fine wielding the sharp edges that have served them well. Letterman will do whatever he wants until he decides to retire. If he has a platform, Leno can grab the slice of audience more interested in “NCIS” than “The Daily Show,” a big chunk of America that likes its jokes a little tamer, and its musical acts a little less jarring.

Sure, that’s a crowd more comfortable in Branson than the Hamptons, but they have TVs, too-- and money.

It was a simpler era when I caught late-seventies Carson monologues on my tiny dorm TV. But the game is still the same. TV networks are still in a pitched battle with rivals every day.

But with more of us splintered across a spectrum of DVRs, Netflix and Hulu, the available takers are fewer than when Johnny faced only glancing competition from the likes of Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop and Merv Griffin.

The near future of late-night seems to contain little for viewers right of center or north of 50. But in the dwindling arena of conventional broadcast TV, there is still success to be had for any show paying attention to that marketplace.

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