Big news in the world of shows you don’t watch

We have important and breaking* news, if you consider who hosts “The Tonight Show” or “Late Night” to be something even remotely important, and unless you are reading this from a retirement community or an NBCUniversal office, you probably don’t care all that much.

Yes, Jay Leno has finally confirmed that he will be stepping aside again so that Jimmy Fallon can host “The Tonight Show” next year. 

“The Tonight Show,” don’t forget, is a behemoth that topped 3.5 million viewers during a recent week (that’s 3.5 million, not 35 million, by the way, and if you want to compare apples with other apples that air during very different timeslots and with very different competition, that’s only a little better than the disappointing ratings “Happy Endings” got when it returned last Friday).

And in case you want to point out that sure, the ratings might not be huge, but at least these shows are still valuable to their networks, please read this Hollywood Reporter story noting that “The Tonight Show” now generates significantly less profit and ad revenue than it did in previous years.

Sure, I think Jimmy Fallon is funny and I enjoy many of the things he does on his show that I see the next day when people email or share the videos. But I can count the number of times I have watched a portion of his show live or DVR’d on one hand (I think it’s three times? It might be four). These shows are useful for networks seeking reliable programming for people to fall asleep to, and they are interesting to viewers insofar as individual segments can be broken off into easily digestible chunks that can be viewed the next day by the overwhelming majority of the population that does not and will not watch any of these shows.

I did devote some time to that whole Conan/Leno debacle the last time we did this (and I cared about that slightly more than I care about this simply because I really, really like Conan and really don’t enjoy anything about Jay Leno or his show), and here I sit, again blogging about something that doesn’t matter to most people. The storyline emerges that Leno is going to be replaced, so people report about it; Leno and others joke about it, so people report about it; the news is confirmed, so again, people report about it. All the while, most people keep on living their lives and not caring and definitely not watching.

But I did really enjoy this Bill Carter story in the Times, with the wonderful “Leno Blesses ‘Tonight Show’ Succession Plan” headline that makes me want to stick a hot poker in my eye. I particularly liked this quote from Leno:

“The main difference between this and the other time is I’m part of the process. The last time the decision was made without me. I came into work one day and — you’re out.” This time around “there really aren’t any complications like there were the last time,” he added. “This time it feels right.”

Now, “the other time” was when NBC announced in 2004 that Conan would take over “The Tonight Show” in 2009. So this “I came into work one day and — you’re out” is completely true, if he means that he came into work one day and was told he had a full five years to figure out what to do next. 

But there’s also this, from a 2004 story by Bill Carter in the Times:

NBC executives said today that Mr. Leno was instrumental in making the new arrangement, having agreed when he signed his latest deal in March that he would be willing to step aside for Mr. O’Brien in 2009. He will be 59 at that point, while Mr. O’Brien will be 46.

In a statement, Mr. Leno said: “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised my wife Mavis I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.”

You see, the timing was right in 2004, but this time it feels right in 2013, so obviously that’s entirely different.

Now, the easy and obvious joke is to say that Jimmy Fallon will do a great job until Leno retakes the hosting job in early 2015. And who knows, that could happen again, and we would all discuss it and people would breathlessly report it and then in 2020, we would again discuss the (presumably) white male comedian who will try to take over “The Tonight Show” and the (presumably) white male comedian NBC will assign to “Late Night.”

But the most important thing to note here is that “The Tonight Show,” which was once the alpha and the omega of late-night comedy, is now a show that basically nobody watches and a show people only care about when hosting changes are announced. Also, if this all does happen as it has in the past, Leno should probably come up with a new way to tell Bill Carter that this time is right sometime between now and 2020.

* – This news is only “breaking” in the sense that NBC finally confirmed what Kim Masters has been reporting for a while now (also, lest we forget, the Daily News).

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