Friday, April 4, 2014

The Late Night Landscape

I didn't write much about the handover of "The Tonight Show" much, because I didn't have much to say about it. I never watched Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon with any regularity. I never had much of an attachment to "The Tonight Show," only barely remembering the very end of Johnny Carson's legendary tenure. I was a fan of Conan O'Brien and felt he was cheated out of the hosting job, but that was years ago. I really don't watch late night television anymore aside from "The Daily Show" with John Stewart, which I tend to watch the next day in the early evenings when I get home from work.

But then David Letterman announced his retirement, and suddenly I found that I did care. There was a brief period in grad school where I would stay up to watch Letterman, and then Craig Ferguson most nights. But more than that, it's Letterman who I view as a one of my cultural constants, not Leno. I've been hearing about his late night antics with the Top Ten lists and Stupid Pet Tricks since the '80s. I know about the Crispin Glover, Madonna, and Drew Barrymore incidents. I remember the year he hosted the Oscars. I actually made a point of tuning in to see the Oprah appearance on his show. The idea that Letterman is retiring hit me much harder than I anticipated, and I realized he's been on television nearly as long as I've been alive. He's outlasted popes and presidents and the Cold War and Andy Rooney.

Moreover, there's the makings of some real drama going on around his departure. The battle over "The Tonight Show" was over in 2010. We knew that Leno was going permanently once he made the announcement, and that he would be succeeded by Jimmy Fallon. The only question was whether the ratings were going to hold up this time, and they did. David Letterman's successor is very much in question. Craig Ferguson is still hosting "The Late, Late Show" and has a small but very dedicated following. However, it's not clear how well his brand of humor would carry over to a bigger and more conventional program. There's also a good chance that Ferguson would turn down the job. That means the door is open for the network to pursue other options, including cable hosts Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O'Brien, whose contracts on their current shows will be up in 2015 when Letterman is planning to make his exit.

Or they could go even farther afield. Just about every major comedy star is suddenly a contender - Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Neil Patrick Harris, Drew Carey, and Chris Rock have come up repeatedly in the early speculation. Are late night audiences ready for a woman host like Chelsea Handler or Tina Fey? Would CBS be bold enough to poach someone like Jimmy Kimmel or Ellen Degeneres? Could Jay Leno be lured out of retirement? Or maybe it won't be anyone we know. After all, Conan O'Brien was practically an unknown when he inherited the old post- "Tonight Show" timeslot back in 1992 when Letterman decamped to CBS. There are a lot of up-and-comers who could really make a splash, though it's not going to be like the "Tonight Show" handover. Leno inherited program with a long and storied history. Letterman's show was always Letterman's show.

Whoever gets the job, it's going to really mean the end of an era this time. I still think of the late night hosts as being primarily a brotherhood of older gents, but now Kimmel and Fallon have firmly established themselves, and 60-something Letterman will probably be succeeded by someone a decade or two younger. Will it be enough to lower the ever-advancing average age of the viewing audience again, I wonder? Everybody used to watch Carson, and then everybody watched either Leno or Letterman, but in recent years the audience has fractured thanks to a wave of alternatives, and I expect we're just going to see it fracture further in the years to come.

The late night talk shows, like everything else on network television, is losing ground to cable and the internet. The "Tonight Show" transition garnered a ratings bonanza for NBC, and I expect the last few David Letterman shows in 2015 will do the same for CBS - news of the retirement announcement was enough to boost his numbers earlier this week. But after that's all over, when things settle down and we have a new status quo, what then? I can't see myself changing my current viewing habits no matter who ends up in the Ed Sullivan theater, and I doubt many others will either. Unless something drastic happens, I suspect the end of Letterman will be network late night's last hurrah.

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