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As Leno exits ‘Tonight,’ late night TV seeks younger viewers

February 6, 2014 at 6:32 PM EST
After 22 years, Jay Leno will offer his final monologue as host of “The Tonight Show” Thursday. Leno took over the iconic late night television show from Johnny Carson in 1992; now he passes the job on to fellow comedian Jimmy Fallon. Hari Sreenivasan looks at what’s next for “Tonight” with Bill Carter of The New York Times.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: A longtime fixture and ratings champion of late-night television prepares to say goodbye, as the network aims to expand its audience in an increasingly fragmented market of viewers.

Hari Sreenivasan looks at the thinking behind the move.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After 22 years of hosting “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno is packing it in after one last program tonight.

The 63-year-old comedian began his run as host in 1992, when Johnny Carson retired after 30 years on the job.

MAN: Jay Leno!

HARI SREENIVASAN: In 2009, NBC briefly moved Leno to a 10:00 p.m. time slot…

MAN: It’s “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: … and tapped Conan O’Brien to replace him on The Tonight Show, but the ratings did poorly, and Leno returned to his late-night gig.

CONAN O’BRIEN, “Conan”: HBO, when you make the movie about this whole NBC late-night fiasco…

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN O’BRIEN: … I would like to be played by Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: This time, Leno is leaving for good, and says he will play comedy clubs and do occasional TV work, replacing him, Jimmy Fallon, who’s hosted “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” since 2009.  He and his hip-hop studio band The Roots promise to bring a younger, hipper air to the venerable “Tonight Show.”

Fallon formally takes over on February 17.

We’re joined now by Bill Carter from The New York Times, who’s written extensively about late-night television.

So, Bill, why is this transition so important?

BILL CARTER, The New York Times: Well, the changeover at “The Tonight Show” has always been kind of a national event.

I think this one is being watched really closely because the last one went so badly. And it is a generational shift. It is a true generational shift, like Carson to Leno, in that Leno could be Jimmy Fallon’s father. He’s 24 years older and clearly has had a long run. And Fallon has been designated as heir, and it’s getting a lot of attention because of that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: NBC has tried a younger host before, as you mentioned. Why is Jimmy Fallon different?

BILL CARTER: Well, I think they feel that Fallon is a broader performer, more of a variety-style entertainer.

He does have, I think, sort of a boyish appeal that they like. And he’s been on “Saturday Night Live.”  He’s had a lot of experience with other forms of comedy. They like that idea that the show will change up a little bit from being sort of a stand-up-centric to much more of a sketch performer.

And I just — they feel like this guy is very, very likable, and they’re sort of putting all their chips on him based on his success so far.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How relevant is late-night television?  How much does it matter to advertisers?

BILL CARTER: Well, it’s certainly not as lucrative as it used to be.

And part of the reason far is that the landscape is packed with these shows. There’s so many of them. If there’s only two of them, you would probably still see kind of really bigger ratings and much better advertising revenue.

I think the advertisers like the fact that the guy is on five nights a week. There’s a lot of airtime. And if you get a host that people really decide they like and they tune into regularly, it’s a pretty steady audience. And the shows are not particularly expensive. The hosts tend to be very well paid.

But, you know, for five hours of television, this is not an expensive format. However, I do think it is critical that they reach a certain amount of viewers, or if they go below it, then the show starts to fall into the red. And nobody needs that.

I think this is going to be a very interesting test. They need Fallon to broaden the younger audience and keep a good chunk of Leno’s older audience, and then they will be fine.

HARI SREENIVASAN: NBC has had a rough go of it, so how important is this show to their business?

BILL CARTER: Well, I think it’s more important to NBC’s image than it is to their business.

Comcast is an enormous organization that owns NBC. And they have fantastic profit centers on cable. But “The Tonight Show” is an institution. It’s an American cultural institution. And for NBC, it’s an enormously important part of their history and their portfolio, like “The Today Show” and “Saturday Night Live.”  Those are franchises that nobody else has. NBC really wants to keep them alive and going.

It’s not — it’s going to be very difficult going forward in the future, because a lot of the time people are going to watch these guys on video, not necessarily on television. But, for NBC, the idea of “The Tonight Show” is still a very big part of their portfolio.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When a viewer looks at this genre from the outside, it’s still three guys doing pretty much the same thing. How different is this program likely to be?

BILL CARTER: Well, the basic structure doesn’t change, I think, because each time one of the hosts have tried to change it, it has failed.

So it always starts with a monologue. It always has a desk. It always has a couch. Beyond that, I think what you are going to see different from Fallon is way more variety and sketch and music-oriented material, because that’s what he’s great at. He’s an impressionist.

And he does bits with Springsteen, with music. I think he’s more an entertainer than a comic. And I think so the style of the show will be, I think, fundamentally changed from what you have seen with Jay Leno all these years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, there are rumors out there that Jay Leno might go elsewhere. What are you hearing from your reporting?

BILL CARTER: Well, I — a lot of people are speculating about Jay, but Jay has kept his fire down.

I think he will wait until his contract is up, which is September. Then he will take calls. But he is going to be careful. I don’t think he wants to jump into something where it would really look like it’s a lame version of “The Tonight Show.”

Somebody will call him, though, because he’s been a winner. And winners always get calls. So I think he will probably turn up on television or perhaps the Internet, if he decides that there’s a format, like Seinfeld came up with a great format for him. He will do something because Jay likes to tell jokes every day. He loves that. And I think he will continue to do that as long as he finds the right forum.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bill Carter from The New York Times, thanks so much.

BILL CARTER: OK.