(End of) the late shift: Will replacing Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon amount to anything?

03.21.13 5 years ago 112 Comments


If those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, then it’s pretty clear that the current struggling administration at NBC has no more interest in history than the many failed ones it succeeded.

Yup, it’s time for another round of late-night mayhem, thanks to reports in The New York Times and, before it, Hollywood Reporter, saying that NBC is barreling forward with a late-night succession plan that will have Jimmy Fallon replace Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show” sometime in 2014, whether during the Winter Olympics in February or in the fall of that year.

Leaving aside my feelings about the quality of Leno’s show versus Fallon’s, Vulture’s Joe Adalian makes a very good argument for why this is just as stupid an idea as it was when Jeff Zucker tried to have Conan O’Brien succeed Leno, which led to the fiasco that was “The Jay Leno Show,” Conan’s “People of Earth” letter, etc., etc., etc. I may not like Jay’s show. You may not like Jay’s show. But Jay’s show is still a success, one of the few sure things in the network TV business in general and at NBC in particular. NBC is afraid that Jimmy Kimmel is going to start stealing younger viewers away from Jay, and that they need to get their Jimmy in there sooner rather than later, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that Fallon will do any better at 11:35 than Conan did, and right now, Jay is generally beating Kimmel.

But I’m really just tired of the whole thing, in part because this isn’t the TV landscape of Bill Carter’s great “The Late Shift.” “The Tonight Show,” and the entire genre, don’t mean what they did back when Jay and his manager nudged Johnny Carson into retirement. The country doesn’t in unison turn to these shows after their late local news is over to see what Jay, or Dave, or now Kimmel have to say about the events of the day. Some have already heard Jon Stewart or Conan take on this material at 11. Some are watching “Big Bang Theory” or “Seinfeld” repeats. Some are watching shows they recorded earlier, or Adult Swim, or “Chelsea Lately,” or any of hundreds of alternative choices to the way Johnny and friends did it for decades on end.

That’s not a problem specific to late night, obviously. The broadcast networks are taking a pounding in primetime as well (as Joe notes in the Vulture story, the “Deception” finale ranked seventh in its timeslot). But these late-night shows and timeslots are still treated like the revered institutions they really aren’t anymore, and the idea of shifting Fallon into Jay’s timeslot – even moving “Tonight” back to New York so he won’t lose the indispensable services of The Roots as his house band – isn’t any kind of game-changer.

I like Fallon. I like his show. I think he and Craig Ferguson, in very different ways, have cracked the code of how to freshen up a format that goes back to the mid-20th century: Fallon by involving his guests in sketches and games and songs, rather than just setting them up to tell the same rehearsed anecdotes; Ferguson by attempting to have a genuine conversation with his guests. But I almost never watch their shows, or Jay’s, or Dave’s, or Kimmels’, anymore. If someone sends me a link to a funny “Late Night” bit, or to a charming “Late Late Show” interview, I’ll watch it the next morning, but that’s as far as it goes. Our house is a “Daily Show” house, and if we’re still up after the Moment of Zen, we’re usually shifting over to an old sitcom on Netflix.

The late-night talk show format exists the way it does because it’s the way it’s always existed. I had hoped Conan might try to reinvent it, either when he was (briefly) given “The Tonight Show,” or when he shifted over to TBS, but he seems perfectly happy to keep doing his slight tweak of what Johnny and Dave were doing before him. Fallon and Ferguson have their own tweaks, as does Kimmel (who has a knack for making big-name stars feel comfortable participating in ridiculous bits, and who stands to benefit from being the only 11:35 show still taping in Los Angeles), but it’s all variations on a very old theme.

I just don’t see the generation that’s even younger than me turning these shows into their habit the way previous ones did for Johnny, Dave and Jay. They’ll also watch the viral videos, but not the shows themselves, and until the business figures out how to make a radical shift, that’s not where the money’s being made. Right now, it’s a case of holding onto the audience that’s still trained to look for these shows, and if that’s the case, NBC’s probably better off just rolling with Jay for as long as he wants to do it (a.k.a “for the rest of his life”).

But I’m curious about everyone else’s late-night viewing patterns at this point, whether you’re young, old or in between. Who and what are you watching after primetime? Do you still enjoy the monologues, the guest interviews, and all the other classic trappings? Do you think any one of the current hosts does the job better than the others? Will you be any more inclined to watch Fallon an hour earlier than you are now?

Have at it. I don’t want to assume that my own lack of interest in the genre applies to the rest of the world.

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