Thursday, May 17, 2012

Johnny Carson and Late Night TV Today

To mark the 20th anniversary of his retirement from “The Tonight Show,” PBS’s “American Masters” series aired a fine documentary on Johnny Carson earlier this week.  This special reminds us again of the decline of mass culture, as Carson’s “Tonight Show” was the last late-night program that most Americans watched.  Over the last decade, a plethora of shows have emerged on both the cable and broadcast networks that appeal to particular audience niches.

From 1963-1992, Carson was virtually the only game in town on late night television, dominating the ratings for his entire stint.  Over the years, numerous challengers tried to displace him, including Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, and Pat Sajak.  His only real rival throughout most of this time was Ted Koppel’s “Nightline,” which began as a nightly program during the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis.  “Nightline,” though, was a news program, not another talk show.  Toward the end of his reign, “The Arsenio Hall Show” emerged as a real contender, foreshadowing future late-night programs aimed at younger, urban viewers

Through the years, Carson created indelible characters like “Carnac the Magnificent,” was a fine interviewer, and had the ability to sustain a monologue even when it was bombing with an audience.  It seemed that his Nebraska upbringing gave him the ability to simultaneously appeal to viewers in urban areas as well as Middle America.  Like Walter Cronkite, the dominant news anchor of the era, he wielded cultural power far greater than his successors.  The PBS special shows David Brinkley saying that it was a rule of thumb in Washington that once Carson started telling jokes about a particular politician that his career was over.

By providing them with a platform, Carson also jump-started the careers of a virtual who’s who of comedians from the last twenty-five years including Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ellen DeGeneres.  Airing weekday nights at 11:30 p.m. I have fond childhood memories of staying up late to watch Carson, even though I did not find him particularly funny.  In fact, I preferred to watch Leno’s monologues once he became the regular guest host, as he seemed more relevant and hip (yes, there was a time when Leno seemed hip).

Famously, a knockdown battle ensured when NBC chose Leno over Letterman as Carson’s replacement in 1992, likely to Carson’s chagrin.  Letterman took his talents to CBS, where the two have battled for talk show supremacy ever since, with Leno usually winning the ratings battle, though Letterman has tended to come closer with the younger demographic.

Like other television time slots, the late show market has fractured since Carson’s departure.  Rather than a majority of the audience watching “The Tonight Show,” Republicans and older people prefer Leno while Democrats and younger people prefer Letterman.  Moreover, the emergence of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central over the last decade has given cable a central part in the competition.  Though it airs before Leno and Letterman, “The Daily Show” has come close to surpassing the older comedians in the ratings with younger viewers.  Many observers expect Stewart to do so this year, as the 2012 election will likely give a boost to the “Daily Show.”

As I noted in a previous post, one should not get too nostalgic about the pre-cable age of television.  See Carson, like Cronkite, probably had too much influence.  The creativity that has ensued with the arrival of “The Daily Show” and other programs has given us options that are frequently more entertaining.  Still, the common culture that the U.S. had as late as the 1980s is gone and isn’t likely to return.  There will never be another Carson.

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