Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Many of you have been keeping track, no doubt, of the Tonight Show debacle which is quickly coming to a head. As all parties involve move towards the worst possible solution for everybody, I am forced to ask myself a question that I don't think anyone else involved has bothered to consider.


No, not Jesus; although, he does have experience as a Talk Show host. Though if anyone is asking, my assumption is that he would either mediate the difficulties of NBC, Conan O'Brien, and Jay Leno through prayer and thoughtful discussion, or punish them all for their iniquities and excessive lifestyles. It really all depends on what you believe.

Second highest-rated public access show
in lower Colorado!

No, I'm talking about the OTHER J.C., one much more relevant to the conversation at hand.

Heeeeeeeeeeeere's Johnny!

Johnny Carson, the host of the Tonight Show for 30 years from 1962 to 1992, was in this situation once before. Many of us may not remember, but when Carson retired from the Tonight Show, he actually retired. That was the end of his tenure on television. He was seen after that only rarely - once, notably, to receive a standing ovation simply for walking onto the set of Late Night with David Letterman, and once to lift a Buick over his head in support of Krusty the Klown.

The Buick was later purchased by Jay Leno.

And his exit was far from ideal. Despite hosting the show for 30 years, many still felt he was forced out of his position by Jay Leno, who aggressively sought the role of the new host. By all accounts, Carson wanted David Letterman to succeed him, and in fact did refuse to appear on the Tonight Show as long as Leno was the host. But not once in the stretch of 13 years from his retirement to his death did he ever attempt to actually knock Leno off the air. He had his time, what was done was done.

So why can't history repeat itself? Well, for one, NBC seems intent on making terrible decisions, and two, Jay Leno is not bowing out gracefully as did his predecessor. When Leno left The Tonight Show, he immediately returned to NBC with The Jay Leno Show, which was now the lead-in to the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. In a new time slot, many people discovered what the veneer of Carson's untouchable legacy had somehow hidden - Jay Leno is not actually very funny. People began tuning out, and TVs were not on NBC when Conan's show came on.

Another victim of low ratings due to a terrible lead-in.

Now, when Johnny left, Letterman went to another network and began his own show. Leno took over the Tonight Show, and eventually Conan O'Brien filled Letterman's shoes as the host of Late Night, the follow-up to the Tonight Show. Over the years, Conan, a former writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, found his pacing and garnered a loyal audience. He turned down several lucrative offers from other networks during his tenure because he was often told he was being groomed to eventually become the host of the Tonight Show, a life-long dream of his. A dream formed by and large because of how inspired he had been by Johnny Carson. In 2004, it was made official - Jay would leave and Conan would step in. It seemed like everything was moving along in a manner meeting the Johnny Carson seal of approval - which even his own departure did not.

Then, the network stepped in.

"The Titanic, the Hindenburg, NBC . . . manmade disasters."

NBC executive Jeff Zucker decided that despite Leno's abysmal ratings, the solution was not to, as would seem rational, support The Tonight Show and Conan, but to continue backing Jay. Leno was offered his old time slot back in a 30-minute format, which would move Conan back to 12:05 - meaning The Tonight Show would actually become the "Very Soon into the Next Day Show." Conan announced he would have no part of it, and was going to leave NBC if this took place. Zucker did not relent, and so Conan did indeed decide to quit. This move prompted many, including fellow Gentlemen Matt Lindeboom, to declare their support by stating in solidarity "I'm with CoCo."

So, What Would Johnny Do? If history is any barometer, he would retire with grace and dignity, stepping down to allow the next generation a chance at greatness. Even if he didn't agree with the choices made, he would abide by them, knowing that his accomplishments would not be diminished. He would lead a life of quiet solitude with his family, traveling and enjoying retirement, leaving his fans with a lifetime of memories to cherish. He would not instead stick around, letting the network fire his successor and put him back into the same spot he had just left.

Johnny Carson would have refused NBC's offer and told them to stick with Conan. Johnny Carson would never have accepted a new show - certainly not one leading into The Tonight Show - in the first place. And if the situation came down to what it is now, Johnny Carson would not continue to smile and pander, pretending he's a victim too, all while gleefully stepping back into the role he was supposed to have passed on to its rightful heir.

But, as Leno states himself, he is no Johnny Carson.


B.Graham said...

brilliant. just brilliant.

Adam Z. Winer said...

Just some things to keep an eye on:

- Leno never planned to "bow out." He was told he had an endpoint for his tenure on the tonight show. He graciously complied. They offered him a 10pm show - he accepted. NBC pulled his show, and told Conan he was being pushed back. Conan said no, so they offered Leno back his old show. Leno never wanted to retire, never suggested so, and to say he should bow out at age 59 isn't really fair.

- It wasn't Leno's ratings that were suffering, but he was hurting the local news shows he preceded. But it was Conan that was down the most:

The reason for the loss, Jeff Gaspin (the chairman of NBC Entertainment) said, was a falloff in ratings for “Tonight” that was far worse than NBC had expected. He said the ratings for NBC’s local newscasts, the direct lead-in to Mr. O’Brien, were down on average about 14 percent among households, and Mr. O’Brien was off by 49 percent compared with Mr. Leno’s audience the year before.

> So basically, the local news shows were down, and Conan was down even more.

Also: Johnny Carson does not = Jesus.

Adam Z. Winer said...

NYTimes article with some of the facts:

and another:

David Pratt said...

I appreciate having NBC's voice accounted for.

Ozkirbas said...

I'm with CoCo

Scotty said...

Adam, I think you actually meant to link to the Wall Street Journal