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Opinion | The new and emerging war for late-night TV

Andrew's Assessments

By Andrew Geisler
On March 4, 2014

Late-night TV brings a lot of joy to its consumers, but has caused many a headache for network executives over what to do, who to choose for host, and how to do so with tact-something they've almost always struggled with.

Johnny Carson made it a nightly staple for many Americans, a comedy talk show hybrid on NBC while you're drifting off to sleep. "The Tonight Show's" success under Carson for 30 years from 1962-1992 turned late night TV into an area of serious interest for networks. Advertisers love the time slot and the show, which runs after the local news across the country, and more importantly at 10:35 in the central time zone.

Back in '92 when Carson was ready to call it quits, David Letterman and Jay Leno, both of whom dreamed of hosting "The Tonight Show" for most of their lives, engaged in an epic battle to take over the franchise. When the dust settled, NBC went with Leno, not without some serious infighting immortalized in Bill Carter's excellent book "The Late Shift," which chronicles the decision on who to choose. Letterman landed on his feet at CBS with his own show, and it looked early on like he had won the ratings war at the 11:35 p.m. slot, until nearly a year in when Leno took over the lead and never relinquished it.

Sixteen years later, NBC kicked out Leno for Letterman's Late Night replacement, Conan O'Brien. His run at Tonight lasted only seven months, and Leno, who was never far away, was back in at 11:35 (the jockeying there also got a Carter book, this one: The War for Late Night).

Four years later, NBC split with Leno, this time for Jimmy Fallon (Conan's heir apparent at "Late Night") and wasn't as acrimonious as the proceedings had been in the past. And sliding long time Saturday Night Live head writer and "Weekend Update" host, Seth Meyers into "Late Night" was an obvious move.

But Letterman, who can probably keep his show until they take him out feet first if he wants to, and Fallon aren't the only two in the 11:35 ring. In 2003, ABC got into the late-night game with the irreverent Jimmy Kimmel, who had been deeply influenced by Letterman. In 2013, after years of bouncing around time slots, Kimmel's show got the 11:35 time slot.

This sets up a fascinating new war over late night preeminence that began two weeks ago when Fallon's "Tonight Show" made its debut.

Fallon and Kimmel both certainly have different styles from late night hosts of yesteryear, though Fallon's style is more distinct.

Notably, 11:35 has lost the populism it's had since Carson took over in 1962. Carson was from Omaha and was a big hit in fly over country at the 10:35 slot. Leno was chosen partially because he carried that same un-New York like appeal.

Now all three networks have a serious coastal bias in their hosts. The networks could be killing an important franchise with their coastal blind spots. Or they could know what they're doing. Jimmy Fallon's child-like joy on stage and Kimmel's acerbic wit and fearlessness could be exactly what viewers want today.

But I doubt either will be as successful in the central time zone as Leno was. Then again, Leno's audience was getting far too old, and the younger push was a smart move to engage those in the all important 18-49 demographic.

Only time will answer the ratings question, and early ones shouldn't be made too much of - remember Letterman was beating Leno at first until Leno crushed him for years. This is simply America's late night feeling out period with the two Jimmy's (since Letterman is old news).

Early on, we can see that both Jimmy's have done what great comics in the past have done to great success: been comfortable with themselves. They know who they are. They know their own styles, and have had years of experience at less high profile shows and time slots. Both are very funny and very talented. Kimmel's format is certainly more like a traditional late night show with all of Fallon's skits and dances, but that may not matter. Traditional could be dead in late night. It's certainly dead in most other places in the culture.

Some have been critical of Meyers for his safe format on "Late Night," but here too, patience is the answer. When Conan O'Brien took over "Late Night" for Letterman, he was so bad early on that many wanted to pull him early. But he found his niche and Meyers will too. The 12:35 time slot is designed for a comedian to grow into a show, not for a maestro to come in and rock America's comedic sensibilities.

That's what 11:35 is for. It's Jimmy vs. Jimmy for your bedtime TV entertainment and the new war for late night glory.


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