The Battle for Late Night Television

By Shamus
on Jan 19, 2017
Filed under:
Television

Warning: In this post I’m going to attempt to portray American television executives in a semi-favorable light. This is a difficult stunt that should only be attempted by trained professionals. Or idiots. Do not try this at home.

Johnny Carson was the man. He still is. Nobody has held the top slot on late night for as long as he did. Given the fragmented state of pop culture and the proliferation of late night shows, this is not going to change in my lifetime. We will never see another Johnny Carson.

It’s difficult to impress on young people just how powerful his reach was. 6.5 million people watched him every night. That’s about double what YouTube giant PewDiePie averages. But saying he’s “twice as popular as PewDiePie” is really underselling just how omnipresent Carson was. PewDiePie gets his 3 million viewers in a world of 3.2 billion internet users. Carson got his 6.5 million viewers from a potential audience of 220 millionThe population of the United States at the end of the 1970’s. Americans. To put that in perspective 1 in 1,000 internet users watch PewDiePie, while 1 in 34 American Television viewers watched Carson. Which means that in the U.S. everyone, everyone knew who Johnny Carson was.

Most of my extended family has never heard of PewDiePie, Philip Defranco, RayWilliamJohnson, or any of the other YouTube giants I can’t be bothered to look up right now. In fact, I’d never heard of RayWilliamJohnson either, and I’m on YouTube all the time. I didn’t know who he was until I typed “most popular youtubers” into Google three minutes ago.

This is not to belittle the accomplishments of those YouTubers. I’m just saying our culture has changed so that – outside of perhaps world leaders – nobody can ever be as universally recognized as Carson was in the United States.

Right: Johnny Carson. Left: Co-host Ed McMahon.

Right: Johnny Carson. Left: Co-host Ed McMahon.

Even if you don’t watch late night shows, you probably know the format: The show is shot in front of an audience. There’s a stage in the middle and an interview desk off to one side. Behind the desk is usually a faux-window alluding to the city where the show is produced. There’s a sidekick who introduces the host, and who jumps in for comedy bits that require back-and-forth dialog. There’s also a live band, which (for the people watching at home) does little more than play the intro music and the segue into and out of commercial breaks. The show begins with the opening monologue, which is usually a series of light, generally inoffensive takes on the day’s news. After that is a comedy bit, usually involving the sidekick. Then the first guest, which is usually a major celebrity. Then a musical guest. Most shows go on to feature a second guest. Often there’s a second, shorter comedy bit thrown in between the longer segments.

The order might change slightly, and sometimes the desk is on the right instead of the left, but this is basically the formula as it’s existed for half a century. Depending on where you’re from, the genre is sometimes called talk showsWhich confuses them with things like Oprah, The View, or Ellen., variety showsWhich confuses them with stuff like America’s Got Talent. or (my preferred term) “late night shows”. Obviously Carson didn’t invent the format, but he perfected and codified it. If you go back before Carson, the shows might feel a little strange to modern sensibilities. Jack Parr (Carson’s predecessor) and Dick Cavett (Carson’s occasional competition) would come off as incredibly stiff and dry today.

The King of Late Night


Link (YouTube)

Carson hosted the Tonight Show for 30 years. It was the flagship of the NBC network. The show was so popular that rival networks ABC and CBS usually didn’t bother trying to compete. Rather than put up late night shows of their own, they put up other kinds of programming. I was 21 years old when Carson finally retired, and yet I have no memory of what these shows were. Nobody talked about them and nobody cared, because Carson was the king of late night.

Note that my source for the ratings I’ll be discussing throughout this article is this Wall Street Journal chart. It’s a really interesting visualization of the changing fortunes of late night. I’ve saved this snapshot of the chart just in case that link goes dead. The chart begins in 1991, just when late night shows began to proliferate. Before 1982, the chart would just be Johnny Carson’s face, all by itself, over and over, for about 20 yearsActually, there were various contenders like Dick Cavett along the way. But they were hopelessly outmatched by Carson and their shows did not last long..

The Tonight show came on at 11:30PM, directly following the nightly news. Remember that this pre-dates cable television, so we’re talking about a world where the nightly news is the major source of information for most people.

The show was so successful that NBC decided to follow it up with another one. In 1982, NBC introduced Late Night with David Letterman, which followed the Tonight Show timeslot.

In one of his most famous gags, Letterman put on a velcro suit and threw himself at a wall. This was, of course, during the velcro craze in the 80`s.

In one of his most famous gags, Letterman put on a velcro suit and threw himself at a wall. This was, of course, during the velcro craze in the 80`s.

Letterman ran a different sort of show. He was young, informal, and irreverent. His set looked cheap on purpose. The window behind the desk was a primitive model of New York, and he often did comedy bits that drew attention to how absurd and fake it looked. (Such as pretending it was a real window.) His jokes were a little edgier.

Letterman also had a bit of a mean streak. Occasionally he’d mock guests. Sometimes he’d do it to their face. Sometimes he’d mock them during the opening monologue before they came out. If a member of the audience wound up on camera, he wasn’t afraid to make them the butt of a few jokes. If they stopped smiling, he wouldn’t back off, which sometimes made him seem like a bit of a bully. His goal was to make the audience laugh, and if he had to hurt some feelings to get there? To him, that’s just show business.

A lot of the show was a deliberate subversion of the more classy Tonight Show formula. A lot of his comedy bits – such as Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks – look more like a precursor to Jackass than anything on late night. It was a show designed to look like it was made on the cheap, and to give the sense that the clowns were running the circus.

The subversive tone and late timeslot meant the show wasn’t very popular with the traditional Tonight Show audience. Those folks had jobs and couldn’t stay up until 1:30 in the morning watching a bunch of (to them) juvenile tomfoolery. But while the show didn’t connect with married adults, it was a massive hit with teens and college students.

And so it was for a decade. Mom and dad watched Johnny Carson, and then they went to bed and the kids snuck out of their rooms and watched David Letterman.

End of an Era

Left: Jay Leno. Right: David Letterman. Everywhere else: Burn it all. The furniture. The suits. The haircuts. All of it.

Left: Jay Leno. Right: David Letterman. Everywhere else: Burn it all. The furniture. The suits. The haircuts. All of it.

In 1992, the time came for Carson to retire. NBC needed to replace him. There were several candidates:

  1. Joan Rivers was probably the front-runner for Carson’s job until her public feud with Carson in the late 80’s. I haven’t seen enough of her appearances to know what she was like as a host, but she was notoriously controversial outside of the show. She’d go anywhere for a joke. Nothing was sacred. She made David Letterman look like Mister Rogers.
  2. Garry Shandling was another possibility. He hosted the Tonight Show several times in the 80’s, as Carson took more and more time off. People talked about him taking Carson’s job, but I think he was always the dark horse candidate. He wasn’t as quick or as funny as Carson when interviewing guests, and his deliberately awkward affectation was off-putting to some.
  3. Jay Leno. Well, we all know he got the job. His upbeat style fit the existing tone of the show. Leno is unpopular these days as a guy who maybe got a little too comfortable and told the same jokes for a little too long. Also there was what he did to Conan O’brien. We’ll talk about that later. The point is that in 1992, Leno was the obvious choice. The safe choice.
  4. David Letterman. Letterman was the other “obvious” choice. He was popular. He was funny. He’d proven he could run his own show.

By 1992, it was basically a race between Leno and Letterman. And I think Leno represented the better choice. His style of comedy fit with the existing Tonight Show format, while Letterman felt more like a renegade. Letterman was popular with young people, but the Tonight Show was and always had been aimed at an older audience.

If I was a TV network executive in 1992, I’d do the same thing they did. I’d pick Leno over Letterman. Yeah, Leno’s charm had faded somewhat after a decade or so in the chair. But in 1992 he was young, energetic, funny, and (most importantly) popular with the existing Tonight Show audience. Most people look down on the NBC executives for making this call, but they do so with the benefit of hindsight. Based on what everyone knew when Carson retired, Leno made the most sense.

Dave’s Revenge

The narrative begins to take shape: Bad-boy Letterman beats those NBC stiffs at their own game.

The narrative begins to take shape: Bad-boy Letterman beats those NBC stiffs at their own game.

The problem was that David Letterman didn’t want to spend the rest of his career at one in the morning, telling jokes to people who fell asleep watching The Tonight Show. What was he gonna do? Wait a few decades for Leno to retire and hope NBC gave him the job the next time around?

Dave wanted to be in the big timeslot. He wanted the cultural impact and prestige of being on right after the nightly news. At the same time, CBS was tired of surrendering the 11:30pm slot to NBC every night. They wanted their own show.

And so it happened. Letterman moved to CBS to host The Late Show with David Letterman. And then he kicked the crap out of NBC in the ratings.

He had a more prestigious timeslot and a bigger budget, but he kept all the hallmarks of his old show: Cheap sets, informal presentation, and humor with a bit of an edge.

He probably wouldn’t have been able to defeat Carson, but Jay Leno was a soft target. It was the 90’s, and everything was going edgier. The Simpsons, Married With Children, and (to a lesser extent) Home Improvement were slaughtering the sacred cows of sitcoms. Gone were the days of Dad holding the family together with folksy wisdom and family values. Dysfunctional families were in, and TV dads were morons. Gen-X was on the rise, and they (including me) were too sarcastic and cynical for a family-friendly guy like Leno. Letterman’s subversive bent made him the right man for the time.

Bill Murray was the very first guest on Letterman`s new show.

Bill Murray was the very first guest on Letterman`s new show.

You can fault the network executives for not detecting the prevailing cultural mood and adapting, but again, this is an argument that depends on hindsight. From their perspective you could easily imagine things going the other way. Imagine if they went with Letterman and kicked Leno to the curb. Letterman’s laid-back, irreverent style might have been off-putting to the existing Tonight Show audience. Maybe the married moms and dads of America would turn the show off, leaving NBC with the far less lucrative (to advertisers) teen market. And that’s assuming that teens would tune in for the new show. Maybe Gen-X has better things to do at 11:30. Meanwhile, Leno could just as easily have jumped to one of the other networks and taken Carson’s audience with him.

The argument was always about which guy was the right guy, but it’s entirely possible neither one of them was. Maybe nobody was. Maybe NBC was screwed no matter what they did, because nobody else was Johnny Carson. Maybe the shifting culture meant that there couldn’t be another Johnny Carson.

Given the uncertainty, I’d say favoring the existing tone and audience of a show is safer than trying to re-invent a show to appeal to a new demographic. While things turned out badly for NBC, I think they made the best decision they could. Anything better would have required a time machine.

Dave’s glory was short-lived anyway. By 1995, the Tonight Show had reclaimed the throne. Leno and Letterman were roughly evenly matched, but from this point Leno always managed to stay ahead in the ratings.

But it didn’t matter. The narrative had been created: Those dumb squares running NBC were foolish and made the wrong call, ending the 30 years of cultural dominance that Carson had maintained.

The Age of Conan

Hang on, is this thing pointed the wrong way? How did one of the writers wind up in front of the camera?

Hang on, is this thing pointed the wrong way? How did one of the writers wind up in front of the camera?

Meanwhile, Conan O’brien took over Letterman’s old show. Regardless of what you think of his humor in front of the camera, he was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant writers working at the time. He was a writer on Saturday Night Live during one of the most successful periods of the show. After that, he was a writer for then-juggernaut The Simpsons. You can’t have a better resumé than that.

He also made tonal sense. He was like Letterman, only moreso. His comedy was even more off-the-wall. His presentation was even more primitive. (One of his long-running gags involved holding flashlight under his face while predicting the future and refusing to use anything that might pass for a proper costume or special effect. For contrast, it makes Carson’s Carnac skits look like Broadway productions.) He was capable of cruel put downs, but he aimed them at himself rather than outward. Like Dave, his show captured the feeling of clowns running the circus. He had entire skits where the entire punchline was basically, “Can you believe we’re doing something this goofy on network television?” If a Letterman joke bombed, it was probably because it was too mean. If a Conan joke bombed, it was probably too strange.

When Letterman departed and left the show to Conan, the viewership fell from 3.6 million to 2.5. That’s a serious drop. However, that all happened at the transition. Once the show was his, Conan would maintain that 2.5 million viewers throughout his entire tenure. Rival shows came along every few years and and carved out their own share of the late night pie, but they never took any viewers from Conan. The show never grew, but the fans that remained were fiercely loyal.

The Network System

Come on, FOX. Your logo game is weak. At least draw a box around your name or put some fox ears on the letter O. Something. ANYTHING.

Come on, FOX. Your logo game is weak. At least draw a box around your name or put some fox ears on the letter O. Something. ANYTHING.

It should be noted that when we’re talking about direct viewers, we’re ignoring a layer of complexity in the whole situation. Because this is still the age of broadcast television. By 1993 cable TV had conquered the big cities, but people in rural areas often continued to rely on shows broadcast over the airwaves and captured by primitive antennae. It was easy for the big shots on the coast to dismiss all of those people in “flyover country”, but even though those local markets were small there were a lot of them.

In the United States, each region had their own set of local television stations. For example: Around western Pennsylvania, there were three major players:

  1. Channel 2 KDKA, which carried CBS programming.
  2. Channel 4 WTAE, which carried ABC programming.
  3. Channel 11 WPXI, which carried NBC programming.

There was also the minor player channel 53 WPGH, which (at this point in time) tended to run programming for the relatively young FOX network. For the curious: The region also had a PBS station, although public television isn’t really relevant to the drama we’re talking about here.

Note that both the local station and the national network need to run commercials. In the case of late night talk shows, you may remember the bumper screens that said things like, “There’s more TONIGHT SHOW coming up!” Or perhaps, “More to come…” You’ll watch a couple of commercials, then the bumper screen pops up, and then you get more commercials. This bumper is the point where control is handed off from the national network to the local station, and the commercials switch from “Coca-Cola” to “Honest Andy Tri-state Ford Dealership”. Technically, NBC is broadcasting that “We’ll be right back!” screen the whole time. The bumper also gives the two sides a bit of wiggle room, so the local station doesn’t have to perfectly fill the available time with advertising. If they end up with an extra four or five seconds at the end, they can just seamlessly give that time to the bumper without worrying about dead air.

I saw a lot of bumpers over the years, but I never saw these ones, which were at least a decade before my time.

I saw a lot of bumpers over the years, but I never saw these ones, which were at least a decade before my time.

When a local channel chooses to carry a national network, it makes them an affiliate of the network. While being an affiliate is usually seen as being an exclusive kind of deal, it doesn’t have to be. Depending on how the contracts are set up, a local station might choose to carry (say) ABC during the day, but then switch over to showing NBC programming in the evening. This was probably most common in small regions that didn’t have enough local stations to carry all of the networks. Instead of aligning themselves with a single network, a station might choose whichever network was strongest in the given timeslot.

I know it’s strange to imagine today, but in this pre-internet world it was possible that you just couldn’t watch a particular show. The local affiliate might switch to another network just as your favorite show came on, or they might dump the network in favor of a locally-produced show.

If show A was doing slightly better than show B, then some of the more freewheeling local stations would switch networks so they could broadcast A. This would make A even more popular, which would give it more cultural impact, which made it more attractive to advertisers, which might expand the show’s budget, which might cause even more local stations to dump B in favor of A. There might be millions of people who preferred B, but it just wasn’t on in their region. Which means this system tended to amplify trends. The popular got more popular, and niche shows either stagnated or died.

Jimmy

Outside of fragments of the show on YouTube, I`ve never watched Kimmel.

Outside of fragments of the show on YouTube, I`ve never watched Kimmel.

In 2002, ABC finally(!) launched their own show. They did so timidly. They put Jimmy Kimmel Live! on at midnight, a half hour after the other two shows.

This makes some kind of sense, as the shows are generally structured to put the content in order of decreasing popularity. Everyone watches the opening monologue, most people watch the first skit, many people stay for the first guest, some people stay for the musical guest, and a few hang around until the very end. I imagine their thinking was that if they put Kimmel against Leno directly, he’d lose. But maybe Kimmel’s first half hour could win against Leno’s second half hour? Maybe people would watch the best part of the Tonight Show, and then switch over to see the first half of Jimmy Kimmel?

It’s impossible to tell if this was their thinking, if it worked, or even if they believed that it was working. It’s hard to take accurate measurements in a shrinking field amid the constant noise of new shows bursting onto the scene and vanishing again like fireworks.

Avoiding Past Mistakes by Making New Ones


Link (YouTube)

In 2004, a few things began to shake the status quo. Depending on who you ask, there was a fear, or a rumor, or a threat, or a delusion, that Conan was going to leave NBC. His show hadn’t conquered the network, but over time it had performed admirably. Moreover, Conan was the kind of writer you didn’t want to see in the hands of your rivals. It was thought that he might jump to ABC. Like Letterman before him, the Late Night desk seemed a little too small, and the Tonight Show desk seemed very impressive and inviting.

I’m not sure how serious the ABC threat was. They’d just launched Jimmy Kimmel Live. Were they really looking for a replacement already? Did they want to dump Kimmel and re-launch with “Conan O’brien Live”? Or was this an empty threat by Conan? Or paranoia on the part of NBC?

I guess it doesn’t matter if the threat was real or not. NBC thought it was real, and that prompted them to act. They didn’t want a repeat of 1992, where one of their own became a serious threat and the world mocked the executives for not predicting the future. So rather than leave things to chance, they formed a transition plan several years in advance. Everyone agreed to it: Leno. Conan. The network. In five years, Conan would get the Tonight Show.

It was also kind of clear that Leno wasn’t really ready to go. He loved doing the show and he didn’t want to retire. But for whatever reason, he obligingly agreed to give it up.

I kind of lament how boring bumpers have become, but I think it`s a result of better technology. Now that the controls aren`t analog switches controlled by primates, commercial transitions can be seamless and precise. There`s less need for a few seconds of leeway in commercial transitions, which means the bumper images are less important. Alas. They provided an interesting snapshot of the aesthetics of the day.

I kind of lament how boring bumpers have become, but I think it`s a result of better technology. Now that the controls aren`t analog switches controlled by primates, commercial transitions can be seamless and precise. There`s less need for a few seconds of leeway in commercial transitions, which means the bumper images are less important. Alas. They provided an interesting snapshot of the aesthetics of the day.

However, the problem remained that the two shows had vastly different audiences. They used very different styles of humor and had a different tone. Most importantly, there was no guarantee that the people who liked the Tonight Show would enjoy Conan O’brien. There was also no guarantee that Conan’s existing fanbase would follow him to a new show.

This is the part of the story you probably already know, and where people began dumping hate and blame on Leno and NBC. Conan took over, and the ratings promptly dropped. It’s true they’d been in decline for the last few years. This was true across the board. Internet platforms like Netflix and YouTube had been eroding television’s cultural dominance. At the same time, the number of talk shows had grown. In 1991, there were a total of four shows. By 2009, there were 11. Everyone was getting a smaller slice of the pie, because it was being shared by more shows.

But while this can explain the slow, long-term decline in ratings, it doesn’t really excuse the serious drop that happened when Conan took over. And with apologies to the very talented Conan O’brien, I think that drop comes down to the differences in the hosts.

You’d be hard-pressed to find two hosts more different than Leno and Conan. Leno was very safe, predictable, nonthreatening, and family-friendly. Conan was surreal, dark, unorthodox, and absurd. By the standards of the genre he was avant-garde, and his material wasn’t connecting with the traditionalist Tonight Show audience. I personally love Conan, but I also get that his peculiar style just doesn’t work for some people. There’s a level of meta-ness to his humor that falls completely flat among older folks who still make up the majority of the Tonight Show audience. “The joke is I’m not doing the joke you’d expect in this context.”


Link (YouTube)

Again, what should the network have done? Let Conan leave for ABC and risk having yet another rival for the all-important 11:30 timeslot? That’s what happened in 1992, and everyone criticized them for it. This time they did the opposite. They had a plan, they got everyone to agree to it, and they promoted the host of Late Night to The Tonight Show. This was everything people say they should have done back in 1992, and things still blew up in their face.

Conan’s ratings were tanking. Jay really wanted his old show back. NBC just wanted the ratings to recover as fast as possible. Dumping Conan was the only business decision that made sense.

In any case, we have a beloved funnyman running a show that people don’t want to watch. This same fate could plausibly have happened to Letterman if he’d taken over the Tonight Show in 1992 instead of Leno. The problem is that everyone simply assumed that the Host of Late Night should graduate to The Tonight Show, when the two are vastly different shows. It’s like having an expectation that the actor playing Joker should someday get a promotion to Batman. There might be a very small number of people who can do both, but the vast majority are going to be much better for one role than the other.

At the time, Conan suggested that the show might improve if it was given more time. But people are fussy about their entertainment and fickle in their viewing habits. If they don’t like a show, they have literally dozens of other things they can watch without leaving the couch. The days where there were only three networks and you had to cross the room to watch something different were long gone. You can’t afford to “wait” for an audience to show up, because they might be settling in to some new habit at 11:30 and you’ll never get them back regardless of how good the show is.

This is not to say that the NBC executives were blameless. There is plenty of room to criticize their decision-making. But the really big damage came from decisions where there weren’t any easy answers, and it’s possible the alternatives were just as bad as what we got.

The Aftermath


Link (YouTube)

In the end, NBC got the one thing they were trying to avoid: Yet another talk show rival. After NBC forced him out, Conan got a show on TBSAfter a contractually obligated year off..

Leno returned to the Tonight Show. A lot of people hate on the guy for this. I get that. He agreed to leave, but then came back. It seemed like a weasel move. Howard Stern once suggested that the honorable thing would have been for Leno to jump to ABC, start a new show, and face off against Conan directly. That would have punished NBC for pushing him out before he was ready, while also honoring the agreement to let Conan have the show. It also would have given Leno the last laugh. “Be careful what you wish for, guys!”

I admit that this sounds pretty fun. I’d love to see how that would have turned out. I wonder what ABC would have named the show? By 2009, other shows had already used every possible permutation of “Late” and “Show” and “Night”. The trick here is that NBC probably anticipated this threat and built a non-compete agreement into Leno’s contract. Also, they gave Leno a show at the 10:30pm slot just before the news, to avoid exactly this kind of move.

We can play “what if” with various historical scenarios, but the important thing to note is that no matter what happens, NBC loses. If they did nothing, then (it was believed) Conan would go to ABC and start a new show. If they simply boot Leno and give the show to Conan without making preparations ahead of time (like making a non-compete contract and getting Leno to sign it) then Leno could go to ABC. If they stuck with Conan when ratings fell, then they end up with a weak show and Letterman could simply absorb the refugees from the Tonight Show audience. If they give the show back to Leno after giving Conan a chance, then Conan goes to TBS.

NBC was always in a no-win situation. At the end of Carson’s tenure, they already had everything. The show was as big as a television show could get. They had nothing to gain, and any change in the status quo would mean a loss for them. This trend continued to this day. As the leader, they were always the ones with the least to gain and the most to lose.

The State of Late Night

Thanks for watching my legendary show which is now a cultural institution. Don`t forget to like and subscribe!

Thanks for watching my legendary show which is now a cultural institution. Don`t forget to like and subscribe!

Leno hung around for another four years. During that time, the overall trend of declining talk shows continued. The Tonight Show was on top again, but by the end of Leno’s tenure there were a dozen shows in the genre. Not only that, but the public was losing interest in the genre as a whole. Not only were more people sharing the pie, but the pie itself was getting ever smaller. When Leno finally bowed out in 2012, his ratings were lower than Conan’s had been during his short-lived time as host. Numbers that were bad enough to make executives panic in 2008 were considered really good by 2012.

NBC tried again to take the host of Late Night and give him the Tonight show, and this time it seems to have worked out. Jimmy Fallon was embraced by the Tonight Show audience, and to this day he remains on top. Of course, being “on top” means less every year. People are calling Fallon the “King” of late night and saying he “dominates” the genre. And I suppose that’s true. He’s pretty far ahead of the others. But being the “king” of late night in 2016 means you have about the same size audience as Letterman in 1991 when he was still playing second-fiddle to Carson. Fallon’s great accomplishment is to run a show that’s about as popular as the one Letterman walked away from.

Carson took over the Tonight Show in 1962 at the age of 37. Fallon was of a similar age when he took over the show at 39. If history is kind to him, Fallon could enjoy a 30 year run like Carson’s. But regardless of who is hosting the show in 2044, it’s clear that the age of late night is over. It’s not Fallon’s fault. It’s just the way things go. Books were supplanted by radio, which was supplanted by television, which is being supplanted by the internet.

Note that I said supplanted, not killed. I’m not suggesting television is going to die. In the same way that we’ll always have books, we’ll always have radio and television in one form or another. But the point stands that Fallon is the ruler of a shrinking empire.

I have no idea what NBC plans to do for the next transition. I’m sure they don’t either. The next in line for the shrinking throne is current host of Late Night Seth Meyers. Meyers currently has about 1.5 million viewers. For context, that’s one million fewer viewers than the Arsenio Hall show had in 1993 – when it was canceled for not being popular enough.

I imagine the executives at NBC are just praying that Fallon lives a long, long time.

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Footnotes:

[1] The population of the United States at the end of the 1970’s.

[2] Which confuses them with things like Oprah, The View, or Ellen.

[3] Which confuses them with stuff like America’s Got Talent.

[4] Actually, there were various contenders like Dick Cavett along the way. But they were hopelessly outmatched by Carson and their shows did not last long.

[5] After a contractually obligated year off.


A Hundred!20208We've got 148 comments. But one more probably won't hurt.

From the Archives:

  1. Talifabian says:

    Typo check: I believe you mean Seth Meyers has 1.5 million>/b> viewers, rather than 1.5.

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    nobody can ever be as universally recognized as Carson was in the United States.

    Except for psy.

  3. Droid says:

    1.5 viewers, eh?

  4. Christopher says:

    I feel bad for never having heard about Johnny Carson until this blog post. Though to be fair, I’m not American and was born in 1990.

    Good post, anyway. It was an interesting read. While I’ve watched lots of different talk shows(mostly local and British, although they do air most of the American ones here), it’s not a subject I knew much about.

    • KidneyChris says:

      Same here.

      I thought it was cute how the article leads with how omnipresent Johnny Carson was, and I’m sitting here thinking “Who?”

      Again, not American, maybe born too late. But I think you’re underselling “1 in 1000 internet users” verses “1 in 34 Americans” for wide-ranging appeal. Heck, I only know who Conan and Jimmy Kimmel are from people putting (clips of) their shows on Youtube.

      I liked the article anyway. It’s boring to read stuff that tells you facts you already know, so a perspective on the topic is much welcomed.

      (also the fact that you’ve got at least 2 overseas readers here saying how much they like your article shows that you probably have more international appeal than that Jimmy Carson fellow)

      • Ninety-Three says:

        Ditto. I’m Canadian, which is as close to American as you can get and I’ve never heard of the guy. Maybe we were all born too late, but I think this shows that while Carson was ubiquitous at the time, he was the man, he’s not still the man.

        • Bloodsquirrel says:

          As someone is who too young to have watched Carson, but old enough to have seen the tail end of his cultural impact- yeah, he was that ubiquitous.

          I guess the nature of the Late-Night format doesn’t lend itself to being appreciated by future generations. It’s very much about what’s going on right now; it’s not something that you watch reruns of, and the people who used to watch him aren’t on the internet propagating his fandom.

          I guess you could compare it to Seinfeld or Friends- they were culturally dominant at the time, but I would bet that there are a lot of 20 year-olds that have never heard of them. Some stuff just sticks, and some stuff fades away.

          • Kylroy says:

            You nailed it with the bit about him being a more a culture commentator than generator, and pop culture commentary doesn’t age well – a record company lost money selling albums of his Tonight Show monologues in the ’70s, because folks weren’t interested in hearing them again even months later.

            What sticks in the culture is phrases, voices, or ideas (what we’d now call memes), and those bits can persist without people being aware of the context; I think I’ve heard an Ed Sullivan impression on kids’ shows where their *parents* weren’t born when he was on the air. Closest thing Carson had was his Carnak bit, but even that hasn’t really hung around in popular memory.

            (Conversely, Seinfeld’s Festivus looks to become a permanent fixture, while Friends didn’t really generate anything that echoed beyond the series.)

            • Christopher says:

              How you doin’?

            • evileeyore says:

              “Closest thing Carson had was his Carnak bit, but even that hasn’t really hung around in popular memory.”

              The whole putting the envelope up to forehead (or paper, or whatever) and making a jokey “prediction” has though. That’s the meme of that skit.

            • Thomas says:

              Seinfeld has much less recognition outside of America than Friends – to the extent that I would probably bet against a random British person knowing what Seinfeld was, but I would never dream of taking that bet with Friends.

              I’ve still never seen the show, only recognise one actor and I could only vaguely guess at the context. I’m fairly sure I could still talk specific Friends’ episodes with people.

              (I also didn’t know who Carson was, but am British and was born in the 90’s so I don’t feel that surprised)

              • Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

                Thats funny. I’d have thought Seinfeld would have been more popular. Its more experimental and the protagonists are closer to what I’ve been led to understand is the british style, not being sympathetic or heroic. Lacking sentimentality.

                But maybe the brits don’t look across the pond for that. Maybe you look our way when you want our style. It would make sense.

                Or maybe I’m dead wrong about Seinfeld being closer to british style than Friends.

                • Thomas says:

                  There’s a chance it could be a distribution thing – I think I heard that Seinfeld struggled with that, but it might be just that Seinfeld is still too ‘loud’ for British humour (and I’ve heard it’s more culturally specific?) but it’s hard to find a feel-good-everyone-likes-each-other-and-are-pretty-successful British comedy and Friends filled that niche.

                  I sometimes get the impression that Friends might have been even _bigger_ in the UK than in the US. Friends reruns were being played pretty much constantly by TV channels well into the 2000’s. The saturday morning kids show I watched had a dedicated Friends-parody skit every week.

                  EDIT: Looked it up. Make that “reruns were being played pretty much constantly into the 2010’s”. In 2011 Friends drew 400,000 views in the UK. It’s reviews were pretty poor on launch, which is what you’d expect for a show like that in the UK, but the public didn’t care :p

                  • George says:

                    You must be talking about “Chums”!
                    Man that takes me back…

                  • Wide And Nerdy says:

                    I could see Friends standing out certainly.

                    But I have a hard time believing the show was ever bigger anywhere than it was here. It was a powerhouse in its time, right next to Seinfeld. And women weren’t wearing “The Elaine” they were wearing “The Rachel”. That’s the kind of impact that show had.

                    Friends was the Leno of young adult sitcom and Seinfeld was the Letterman. Except, I’m their time slots gave them even larger audiences.

                  • Bloodsquirrel says:

                    Seinfeld is a bit older than friends (89-98 vs 94-04), and those were years where the internationalization of media was growing.

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  Its more experimental and the protagonists are closer to what I’ve been led to understand is the british style, not being sympathetic or heroic

                  Wait,which show are you talking about?Because if you are implying that friends has sympathetic and heroic characters,Ill have to laugh in your face.Loud.

                  • Shamus says:

                    I know being a contrarian is kind of your thing, but this is absurd. MILLIONS of people LOVED those characters. I’ve never cared about the show. (I’ve watched one episode. Didn’t do anything for me.) The Friends are TOTALLY sympathetic characters. As far as I can tell, they were the central appeal of the show. Hate them all you want, but you’re shouting into a hurricane.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      As far as I can tell, they were the central appeal of the show.

                      That doesnt make them sympathetic.They are a bunch of horrible people who do horrible things to each other,and to people around them.If you want proof of that,just watch one episode,the one where no one’s ready,and marvel in how each and every one of them is being a colossal jerk towards the other 5.It has funny moments,like this one,but even that hinges on them being douchebags to each other.

                    • Bloodsquirrel says:

                      There is a big difference between a character being loved and being sympathetic.

                      Blackadder or Basil Fawlty are good examples- utterly unsympathetic, self-serving borderline sociopaths who have become beloved icons because of it. Or there’s one of my favorite characters ever, Black Mage from 8-Bit Theater.

                      The Friends cast weren’t as bad as Seinfeld (whose last episode was all about rubbing it in how terrible they were as people, and literally throwing them in jail for it), but they did have their moments. Ross, in particular.

                    • JAB says:

                      No, no, no. The characters in Friends were supposed to be sympathetic, and at the time of the show, they were. They may have ended up doing horrible things to each other, but it was supposed to be played for laughs, and they were supposed to care about each other.

                      Several things about the show grate on modern sensibilities, like the “He must be gay, right?” jokes. But that doesn’t turn it into Blackadder, or the comic equivalent of a teen horror movie, where you’re supposed to cheer horrible things happening to these people.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      and they were supposed to care about each other.

                      Except most of the time they arent shown like that.

                      Several things about the show grate on modern sensibilities, like the “He must be gay, right?” jokes.

                      Those never bothered me.Im a south park fan.But them being douches to each other,those wouldve bothered me even back in the day.

                    • Dreadjaws says:

                      I have to agree with Daemian here. I loved the show (though I don’t know if I’d feel the same way had I started watching from the first season rather than the fourth), but I’d never call those characters “sympathetic”. They were all a bunch of jerks who’d constantly fight each other for the dumbest of reasons, and any time they learned a lesson, they’d promptly forget it in the next episode.

                      Perhaps “relatable” could apply better, as they did tend to show those characters going through real issues (if sometimes a bit exaggerated, but rarely anything outlandish). Honestly, I understand the reasons for the show’s popularity, but the characters being sympathetic wasn’t one.

                    • Shamus says:

                      I think we’re using different definitions of “sympathetic”, then. “relatable” (your word) and likable (in the sense that people loved the characters) would make a character sympathetic. DL might be using a definition that requires we endorse or agree with their behavior. I dunno.

                      In either case, the “I will laugh in your face!” was an absurdly confrontational way to open such a minor point.

                  • FelBlood says:

                    Remember that we are talking about contrasting Friends with Seinfeld, which requires a uniquely calibrated scale of human decency.

                    Joey, Ross. Chandler and Rachael are horrible people, but put them beside Jerry, George, Kramer or Elaine, and they would come off looking like saints.

                    Brits seem to like their characters with amusing flaws, and a heart of gold, even if it is buried very deep.

                • Sunshine says:

                  Seinfield didn’t catch on to the same degree, partly because the showing it (the BBC, I think) didn’t seem to know what to do with it and played hide and seek with the scheduling. Still, I reckon that anyone into TV or comedy would at least be able to recognise the cast and the show. On the other hand, Friends was a pop-culture juggernaught and I doubt anyone (in some wide age paramaters) would be unfamiliar with it.

            • PAK says:

              But, a recognizable meme DID emerge from the Carson-era “Tonight Show,” namely: “Heeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” At least for most of my life, I have retained the sense that that phrase is still pretty interwoven into the zeitgeist, and I was 9 when Carson retired.

              Which makes me wonder if the cultural relevance of, say, The Shining, is also regionally or generationally specific. (Or, if maybe people don’t realize that line is a reference…?)

              • FelBlood says:

                I was born in 85 and didn’t see The Shining until 2010, but I knew *of* both forms of “He~re’s Johnny!”

                I’d also seen enough homages to “Come play with us, Daniel! Forever and ever and ever!” and “Red Rum! Red Rum!” to appreciate seeing where they came from.

                It’s a little weird to keep seeing new references pop up in new stuff, though.

      • John says:

        I, on the other hand, am an American of approximately Shamus’ age, and despite never having watched any of these shows know who all these people are. They really were kind of ubiquitous, even if you weren’t inclined to stay up late.

        • Daimbert says:

          Yeah, I definitely think age matters more, because I’m a Canadian in the same age range as Shamus and, yes, definitely knew who Johnny Carson was despite never watching the show.

          I also remember the bloopers and practical jokes show that Dick Clark and Ed McMahon did together …

          • Falcon02 says:

            I believe age is the major factor… I was born mid-80’s and I was aware of many of the others on the list, it wasn’t until sometime after 2000 that I started to become aware of Johnny Carson. I was a bit more aware of his “sidekicks” who didn’t retire (such as Ed McMahon).

            But since, have come to understand better just how much he was part of the culture of the time.

        • ehlijen says:

          Yup, TV like that is pretty national. I have no idea who John Carson is, but on the other hand, I’m pretty sure you’d need to be German to have known Thomas Gottschalk (who from what I gather from this article was Germany’s closest equivalent).

          But specific people aside, this was an interesting look into how popular culture worked in that period (swap the names and I’m sure you could draw parallels in many places). Though I don’t think we had the station/network combos here in Europe. There wasn’t too much ground to cover for the networks to do it all themselves.
          The east/west divide added some scary/fascinating wrinkles, but that wasn’t network policy related.

      • Philadelphus says:

        As an American born in 1989 (but who lived overseas for much of my childhood until 2000), I recognize almost all these names but never knew who they were, so thanks for the explanation!

      • Jeff says:

        I’m a Chinese-Canadian immigrant who landed in 1989. Not only was I too young to ever watch Carson, my parents would be in control of the TV and watching Chinese things.

        When I started being able to control the TV in high school it was Leno and Conan – it was still Leno and Conan when I went to university and got out of the habit of watching TV. I remember enjoying both, but Leno was the “mild chuckle” warm-up for the “actually funny” Conan for me and my peers.

        I’ve digressed a bit, but in spite of being an immigrant, of being 9 when Carson retired, of only starting to watch TV a few years after that when the Leno & Conan combo had solidified, I knew who Carson was simply from cultural exposure.

        Also I had no idea that McMahon was a co-host on TV, I always knew him as the giant cheques sweepstakes guy.

    • King Marth says:

      Only now, when looking down to this comment chain, did it finally click in my mind that this is a different person from Johnny Cash.

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Conon O’brien Live

    Who is this conon?And how come you dont talk about him more?

  6. David says:

    For context, I’m currently 27, born in 1989. My personal “late-night” progression is: Johnny Carson -> Jay Leno -> Dave Letterman -> Craig Ferguson. I was only 2 when Leno took over the Tonight Show, but according to my parents, I was aware enough to ask them “Where’s Johnny?” when the change happened. I switched to Letterman when Leno first left, as I was never really interested in Conan. I finally discovered Craig Ferguson after Letterman’s show ended every night, so I watched that up until he was replaced with James Corden. I’d probably like Corden (I liked him on Doctor Who), but I’m kind of done with “late night talk shows”.

  7. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Though to be fair,all those shows have a pretty substantial internet presence,with various subscription schemes and stuff like that.Practically all of those stations have adapted to the internet age rather well,offering practically everything online as well as on tv.Not to mention that modern televisions allow you to watch any show you want hours or days after it originally airs.So the number of viewers after ~2005 does not show the full picture.

  8. Robyrt says:

    The same logic applies to comic books. No one today could possibly command the same audience as Lee, Kirby and Ditko did in the 1960s. The top-selling titles now have numbers that would get a title cancelled back in the day. They aren’t just competing against a much wider array of the same stuff, but against films and TV series using the same IP, and against Minecraft.

    Who are the most popular, respected authors in comics? The subversive, edgy ones who can put a crazy spin on the same old plots they’ve been telling for decades. Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Tom King, etc. They attract the same market of aging fans they always have. The last person whose comics could actually sell millions was Chris Claremont in the 80s, but the rise of the new style made him seem outmoded and wordy.

    • Joe Informatico says:

      Well, and in the 60s and 70s kids could get comics from grocery stores and newsstands, whereas by the early 80s a distributor monopoly working through dedicated comics retailers was pretty much the only way to get comics in North America. Yeah, there were subscription services, but you still needed a direct comics market retailer to introduce comics as something you wanted, because the only place comics were advertised was in other comics.

      Which is the other part of the issue: the best period for comic sales was the early 1990s.* Part of this was the speculator boom: some mint-condition Golden Age comics were being sold in auctions for thousands of dollars, so thousands of people were buying multiple copies of the 13 variant covers of Totally Badass X-People #1 thinking that 20 years later they’d be worth a fortune. (That nearly destroyed the industry and bankrupted Marvel a few years later.) But part of it was just that comic books were finally getting attention from places other than the direct market. I think The Death of Superman (1992) is still the best-selling comics title of all time, because even the most straight-laced, serious news outfit was reporting on the “death” of an American cultural icon. But even though public interest in superhero stories is at an all-time high, sales aren’t that great because the publishers still want the customer to seek out dedicated comics stores instead of making things convenient for the customer.

      *In the Golden Age of the 1940s sure, almost every adult was reading comics and newspaper strips were responsible for selling newspapers, etc. But it’s hard to pin down sales data from that period, or equate newspaper strips with dedicated comic books.

      • ehlijen says:

        Meanwhile, at least in Europe, Disney comic books remained available in newstands and supermarkets. If that was also true in the US, that means there was more convenient competition for anyone who just wanted ‘any comic to read’.

  9. Hal says:

    This is an odd column. Spot-on analysis, but in the recent history of the Thursday column, we’ve had:

    -Long form analysis of Mass Effect
    -Long form analysis of Final Fantasy X
    -The Dot-Com Burst, as experienced by Shamus
    -The Late Show Wars?

    Kind of an unusual topic for these parts.

    In any case, as I said, spot-on analysis, although I think one big X-factor from the 21st century deserves mention: Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. Stewart took over the new show in 1999 and stuck around for the better part of two decades. By the end of his run, he was getting roughly 2.5 million viewers, which is both good for a cable show and basically what the network shows were pulling, give or take. The Daily Show wasn’t exactly the format as those other Late Night shows, but it definitely competed in the same genre, and it definitely competed for the young/edgy audience.

    • BenD says:

      I’m glad your brought this up. I think it’s arguable – maybe indisputable – that the late show era gave way to the news satire program. When I discovered Stewart, his show (and then his and Colbert’s) took me away from the standard late shows entirely.

      • Kylroy says:

        And then Colbert took over The Late Show, so the circle is now complete.

      • Deoxy says:

        “the late show era gave way to the news satire program.”

        The only problem I have with that is how many people watch that stuff and then think it’s ACTUAL news instead of entertainment that is DERIVED from real news, where “derive” can mean “a completely fictitious version that we WISH was true”, among many other things (yes, including “accurate and simple relay of factual information” – sometimes reality is funnier than anything we could come up with on purpose).

        It’s a shorter version of the movie “The American President” (or maybe The West Wing? never watched that), only a significant number of people think it’s the truth instead of alternate-reality wish-fulfillment BS.

        • Kylroy says:

          It’s not a work of fiction like The American President or West Wing, it’s editorializing with humor – think Not Necessarily The News or SNL’s Weekend Update. It’s still not news, of course – The Daily Show once addressed this with a slogan of “Where More People Get Their News…Than Probably Should.”

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          The worst is in Jons interview with those guys on cnn,where they tried to justify their network by “but you do it too”.So sad how its the comedian who was the only one that recognized the difference between news and comedy,and how its the comedian that was the least biased and most well researched one.

          • Hal says:

            Eh, the problem was that Jon Stewart constantly went back and forth between being a comedian playing a news anchor, and a news anchor playing at comedy. My favorite expression for this was, “Clown nose on, clown nose off.” When he wanted to deflect criticism, clown nose on. When he wanted to direct criticism, clown nose off.

            That interview, for example? Clown nose on. Steward hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Clown nose off.

        • Tizzy says:

          It’s common to SAY that, but I have yet to see more than anecdotal evidence that a sizable portion of the satirical shows audience did not get news from anywhere else. Jon Stewart was always skeptical of these claims in interviews: not that he had any data going the other way, but it’s just hard to imagine viewers getting anything out of a satirical show if they don’t know what’s going on from more traditional sources.

            • Tizzy says:

              It’s a nice source, but I still don’t feel it answers the problem. It says 12% of online Americans (whatever _that_ means) cited TDS as _a_ place they got their news, but doesn’t address the central question: do they also get news elsewhere?

          • Ninety-Three says:

            but it’s just hard to imagine viewers getting anything out of a satirical show if they don’t know what’s going on from more traditional sources.

            As a non-American, I watched the Daily Show for entertainment and rarely felt like a joke failed to land based on my ignorance of American current events.

          • Peter H Coffin says:

            I, for one, basically didn’t bother with news programs other than what was on The Daily Show. I might have caught a little bit of NPR in the car, but that lasted basically until the day I installed the iPod dock. And that was basically for the entire period from about 2004 to 2015.

            (Admittedly, I never mistook it for a news program, but precisely because of this they were frequently able to devote MORE time to the topics they covered than actual news networks, and Stewart was *emphatic* about pointing this out to actual journalists. And I also feel that the perception of “nose-on, nose-off” wasn’t so much to dodge responsibility as to attempt to pin some accountability to the television journalists that WERE supposed to be providing depth, context, and critique, and were failing to do so. And frankly I’m about to dive into Politics so I’m gonna stop right here with this.)

    • Shamus says:

      Yes, this post is a bit of an odd duck. I wrote it weeks ago, and had planned to use it to fill the gap if I got sick / needed a break. I used it here because I needed another week to polish the next long-form game analysis.

      • newplan says:

        Those of us with an rss feed read it then.

        Very good piece.

      • Falcon02 says:

        Honestly don’t mind, and kinda like this “off topic” diversion. Sure I come here for video game, computer, and RPG analysis, entertainment, whatnot… but Random topics (in moderation) can also help mix things up a bit.

        I kinda include your auto-blogographical (?) personal stories in this, but you’ve done enough of those, and they’ve been informative and interesting, they’ve become another part of why I come here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forwarded your story of your experience in school to school teachers I know, as I think it gives a valuable perspective to them.

        So long it’s well written (which you haven’t disappointed me yet), with a fairly interesting topic (as this one is), you enjoy writing it (which seems essential to your process), and there’s still a healthy feed of the primary topics of this blog, I think random “odd ducks” like this are great!

      • Ivellius says:

        While this was definitely unexpected and strange, it was an awesome post. I still get surprised at the breadth of topics you can reasonably cover: though to be fair, critical thinking skills come in handy no matter the field.

      • Aevylmar says:

        I actually quite liked this post. You have a comfortable style, good insights, and you try to be charitable instead of just mocking people, so despite the fact that I don’t and have never owned a TV (not that you need one nowadays, of course, given Netflix) I found it an interesting read.

    • Cybron says:

      I came here to say this. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report feel like the closest thing to a cultural-commentary touchstone for my generation. Their internet presence helped too – I barely watched TV and I could still catch most of their show.

  10. Don Chesnes says:

    I am about Shamus’s age, and I can remember a time when most nights had a show or shows on that most people watched. You could go into school/work in the morning and find a good number of your co-workers/fellow students had seen it and you could talk about it. It gave you something in common, some way to pass a boring hour.

    That’s gone now. You’re very lucky to find acquaintance whose even HEARD of the entertainment you enjoyed never less able to discuss/dissect its comedic or dramatic value. I miss those days.

    The only thing even remotely like that anymore is sports. “Hey fellow co-worker! Did you see are tremendous/atrocious local sports team play last night! What a delight/tragedy that they got enough/too few runs/goals/points to secure victory/choke!” is a conversation you can have almost everyday with people you barely know.

  11. Zekiel says:

    Thanks for the incidental description of how network TV works in the USA. I’ve heard this referenced in various places and never understood what it meant (and obviously never cared quite enough to go to Wikipedia). In the UK where I live (pre-internet) in most places there were just 4 channels that everyone got pretty much wherever they lived.

    • Lachlan the Mad says:

      Seconded. For me, that was by far the most interesting part of the article. We kind of have that stuff on a very small scale here in Australia because of weird broadcast restrictions — I think that commercial TV networks aren’t allowed to broadcast to more than 80% of the country or something like that — but what’s happened is that the big commercial networks have just bought up subsidiaries and put almost identical content on them (and even this is getting rolled back with the rise of digital TV). In my home town of Newcastle, the Nine Network bought the old local station NBN, and NBN just broadcasts Nine Network programming with the exception that they show Newcastle local news at 6pm instead of the state- or nation-wide news show that most Nine Network channels run.

  12. Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

    Gone were the days of Dad holding the family together with folksy wisdom and family values.

    Yeah, they seriously overcorrected in the 90’s. I grew up with nothing but worthless dads on television. Even the safer TGIF stuff had taken the dad down a peg and the Homer Simpson/Tim Allen tropes started to bleed into even those characters slowly.

    It got so Trekspertise points out that Captain Picard ended up being the TV dad for a lot of kids my age even though he wasn’t a dad and hated kids. While characters like Homer Simpson and shows like The Man Show were dragging the modern dad into the filth pile, Picard was someone you could actually look up to.

    I say this as someone who was a kid at the time. I think adults get myopic in their quest to slaughter the “sacred cows.”

    • Jonathan says:

      It makes a lot more sense if you approach the topic with this thought in mind:

      “Most of the people who make up the media elite in California and New York are hostile to traditional marriage, religious faith, and many other “traditional values.””

      The culture wars are real and they’ve been going on for several decades.

      • Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

        I’m glad the internet gives the middle peoples some alternatives now. We can now decide whether we want to just sit here and take it like we have for decades.

      • Reed says:

        Or you COULD phrase this thought as:

        “Most of the people who live outside the major population centers in America, are hostile to the broadening cultural acceptance of lifestyles and religious beliefs which are not their own.”

        You are correct; the culture wars are very, very real. :)

        • Wide And Nerdy says:

          The intolerance very much goes both ways.

          • FelBlood says:

            Yep. There sure is a lot of unjustified hostility on both sides of the aisle.

            It’s disturbing to think how our parties have evolved to surround themselves with this cloud of toxicity, which poisons and destroys any attempt to discuss or diffuse the dozens of little schisms they use to sort us into one camp or the other.

            Washington knew this would happen, and though he did what he could, he always knew it was inevitable. Curious that they built the American Whig (Federalist) party around him against his will, but the efficacy of his prognostication seems to invalidate the Whig ideals of progressive enlightenment.

            –But I digress extensively, which means I must rest now.

    • Joe Informatico says:

      Or maybe the cultural commentators of the 90s highly overstated the handful of shows that legitimately featured “idiot dads” (not like the moms in those shows were much better), and ignored all the many contemporary sitcoms* featuring good fathers who clearly did their best but–holy crap!–maybe didn’t have a pat answer for everything. You know, realistic characters instead of the idealized father-sages of the previous decades.

      *Roseanne, Family Matters, Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, That 70s Show, King of the Hill–were any of those dads “worthless”?

      • Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

        Or maybe the cultural commentators of the 90s highly overstated the handful of shows that legitimately featured “idiot dads” (not like the moms in those shows were much better), and ignored all the many contemporary sitcoms* featuring good fathers who clearly did their best but–holy crap!–maybe didn’t have a pat answer for everything. You know, realistic characters instead of the idealized father-sages of the previous decades.

        Thats fair I guess.

        *Roseanne, Family Matters, Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, That 70s Show, King of the Hill–were any of those dads “worthless”?

        I like lists so lets go through this.

        Family Matters – Carl drifted in and out of Homer territory throughout the run. He was a hot tempered buffoon. But he did love his family and wife and he was supposedly good at his job. But around the house the dynamic between Carl and Harriet was closer to Tim and Jill, probably because the show was originally supposed to be a vehicle for Harriet following the character’s success on Perfect Strangers (where Carl’s role was secondary to Harriet’s, but overtook in this series because he had a better dynamic with Urkel.)

        Full House – I was actually going to put this up as an example of how I’d have liked all dads to be rounded out but decided not to. None of the three dads on the show were bad people or entirely incompetent. But they all had comic flaws.

        Roseanne – I didn’t watch much of this one. It seemed like a more sober Married with Children at the time and neither of them seemed at all like decent parents too me. It came off like everybody in the family hated each other. And it didn’t ring true for me. My family wasn’t like that.

        The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – Meh. Sure he wasn’t worthless but at the time the series premise wouldn’t have allowed for that. It was about a kid from the streets living with upper class people. They had to be family. It would have been hard to swallow an African American family that was old money back in the early 90’s, so the father had to have a high paying job, which meant he had to have a certain amount of competence. Basically, in this series, at this time, the dad could not have been Homer. The series would not have worked.

        I haven’t really watched the other shows you mentioned but they came along later. This trend did correct itself and shows like those two probably helped by showing how you could make edgy comedy without making the dads completely worthless.

        • Peter H Coffin says:

          Roseanne – I didn’t watch much of this one. It seemed like a more sober Married with Children at the time and neither of them seemed at all like decent parents too me. It came off like everybody in the family hated each other. And it didn’t ring true for me. My family wasn’t like that.

          Yup, I can certainly believe you didn’t watch much of that one. Superficially, yeah, the description fits, but while the characters didn’t always *like* each other and certainly weren’t always *nice* to each other, I really feel that they did indeed love each other very much and had each’s ultimate best interests to heart. There was a bond between them that would have be perfectly summed up by “You can’t call her an idiot! Only *I* can call her an idiot! Get out.” That’s really different from Married With Children’s characters that were really on there because none of them really thought they had the self-worth to fight the legal battle it would take to undo it in any way.

    • Lachlan the Mad says:

      Reason #54983 to love Steven Universe: Spot-on subversion of the “deadbeat dad” stereotype. Greg Universe starts out looking deadbeat as hell — he’s a failed musician who lives in a van, works at a carwash, and isn’t the regular carer for his kid. But as the show goes on it becomes increasingly clear that Greg dearly loves Steven and tries very hard, but really isn’t up to scratch with all the magic alien shit going on.

  13. Lalaland says:

    What you’re describing is the same challenge faced by the news media, at one time we all sat down with the nightly national news and could all agree on the same basic set of facts which we’d then argue over the interpretations that could be layered on top. Now everyone gets their own set of news topics and the ability to ‘set the agenda’ has gone completely instead we live in a never ending hail storm of ‘breaking news’ as novelty has trumped analysis where we all get out own specially curated facts to play ‘gotcha’ with.

    A close friend of mine started to talk about this ten years ago, highlighting the then new risks of ‘algorithmic’ feeds and timelines. Whenever we meet I can’t help but discuss it with her but even as a senior executive at a cable news channel there just is no answer. The old world of “4 channels, pick one” is dead instead we have infinite choices at least one of which will never ask their viewers to look at the hard cases that defy the conventional wisdom that channel pushes.

    There will never be another Johnny Carson because that brief moment where mass market news and entertainment was limited to a narrow few due to the incredible costs of public transmission is over. The rise of the internet now means that transmission costs are essentially zero so PewDiePie can arise from the ether to be as or more globally relevant as someone on a major multi-billion dollar network who spent years grinding in obscurity to get on air.

    We are returning to the world of media as it was during the middle of the 19th century before industrialized printing, radio or tv, where pamphleteers scream for attention in the public square.

    • Fizban says:

      We are returning to the world of media as it was during the middle of the 19th century before industrialized printing, radio or tv, where pamphleteers scream for attention in the public square.

      That is possibly the most chilling version of that statement I’ve heard.

      • Lalaland says:

        :D
        We do kind of wind up depressing each other when we meet up!

      • Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

        But the good news is, we’re all aware of the problem. I don’t like the undertones of the first push made to fix it but we can look at how media solved the pamphleteer problem and apply that solution.

        Subscriptions will help. If a news source can rely on subscription income, it doesn’t have to rely on clicks, so we don’t get clickbait, so we get more sober news, in theory anyway.

        • Kylroy says:

          “…we can look at how media solved the pamphleteer problem and apply that solution.”

          The problem was solved by making much more effective platforms (advanced printing, telegraphs, radio) available but at such high cost that very few people could use them (while nearly everyone could consume them). I…don’t see how we can beat the Internet for both efficacy and ease of access.

          • Lalaland says:

            Yeah this is the problem, the ‘cure’ for pamphleteering was the new capital intensive equipment need to propagate your message such as high volume printing presses, radio transmission towers and then tv transmission towers. As the cost of video capture equipment started to drop we saw the rise of niche VHS and DVD scenes such as skaters, snowboarders, etc but they were limited run and expensive to distribute.

            Now we have YouTube and myriad blogging sites for transmission and a combined computer and video capture device in every pocket. The genie is out of the bottle for content creation and transmission in the same way as it was in the early days of the printing press.

        • Sean Hagen says:

          The problem is getting people to sign up for a subscription.

          Subscriptions are tricky, because if someone doesn’t like your site ( for whatever reason ), they stop their subscription — and getting someone else to overcome that hurdle of “$5 for this site, when I have trouble paying rent/groceries/whatever” is not easy. Or maybe they’re already subscribed and paying for 8 things on Patreon, as well as Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify, and can’t justify another subscription.

          Also, if someone leaves and stops their subscription, there’s the risk they might be more vocal about how your site sucks because they are mad they paid for something and didn’t get any perceived value out of it. These days, it’s not just “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, it’s “the squeaky wheel cost me 5 new subscribers cause they complained to the internet and not to me so I could fix the problem before it started costing me lost revenue”.

          One other thing: proper, unbiased, objective reporting ( especially investigative journalism ) isn’t cheap. It can take months for someone to properly research a story. During that entire time, you’ve got to be paying them not just their salary, but possibly forking out extra for things like travel expenses, food & lodging, covering things like entrance costs for special events, maybe even security. During that time, they’re not making you any money.

          Let’s say you’re a completely online new site ( no physical office ). You’ve also got to be paying for upkeep on your site, your other staff ( moderators, editors, graphic design, etc ), other reporters. If you want to be doing video stuff, you also need some hosts, a video editor or two, a few producers, video techs, etc. Getting ( and retaining! ) enough subscriptions to cover that ( or even a stripped-down version with just a few reporters and an editor ) isn’t easy. I bet most online creator’s days get way more stressful when they have to worry about keeping their Patreons happy ( especially if they’re in the “I quit my job cause I’m finally making enough from Patreon to do this full time” group ).

          My understanding is that the cost of investigative journalism ( or rather, the often long-deferred and risky payout of hopefully getting an article that really boosts readership ) is what started us on the path to click-bait. The thinking was “hey, maybe John P. Writermans can just crank out a think piece of Friday about so that we can get a bit of ad revenue”. Which turned into “he should post those twice a week”. And so on, and so forth. The “quick article” turned into all those journalists did, because ads need views, and views requires new articles — and a journalist who didn’t keep up was let go.

          • Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

            I know the AP already is this thing but you could have several sites pooling their investigative resources. The individual sites could differentiate based on personalities and takes on the findings. Or even just differentiate on how they gatekeep the output.

            Your investigators could funnel facts to subject matter experts or something. Maybe start an article once you know enough to write something and then tack on “this is what we know so far”.

            I know, a lot of this has probably been tried but there has to be a way of tackling the scale issue.

            And after 2016, people have to be tired of clickbait, this is the chance to sell them on sober deliberate reporting. I’m just saying its worth a shot. I’m thinking now might be the time when people finally get the value of actually paying for news.

            • Kylroy says:

              At least on the local level, people never meaningfully paid for news. Sure, there was a subscription involved, but the vast majority of revenue came from ads, and those ads were placed because the newspaper(s) had a monopoly (or oligopoly, if multiples) on a very effective form of local advertising. Absent that, we haven’t found a reliable way to fund journalism.

          • JAB says:

            The way I see it, doing hard news is the killer app for news organizations- person X did Y. But that tends to be relatively boring work, and is low status work within the organizations. High status work there tends to involve opinions and interpretations, for example, the editorial page. But with the internet, every person with a blog suddenly can post their opinions.

            How exactly to fix this, I don’t know. Currently, we seem to have either billionaires buying them and operating at a loss, or trying to have enough hard news that you can’t find elsewhere easily that a subscription is worth it to some people [Wall Street Journal comes to mind].

            • Peter H Coffin says:

              Short of billionaires running the press for the sake of their own goodwill, the option is basically to nationalize it, a la Corporation for Public Broadcasting which basically owns NPR (which has its own funding issues now) and BBC (which has always had a slightly adversarial relationship with funding from its audience). The hard part is proving that those are good models because there’s no financial measure that really works to evidence it, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the very reason that they CAN report in a balanced fashion is that they have a dependable revenue stream that is separate (for the most part, at least) from sponsorship, either individual or corporate.

              • Aevylmar says:

                Of course, while this is certainly fair, the danger of nationalizing it is that a nationalized news service has a sponsor – the government, or, rather, whichever subset of the “Yes, Minister” bureaucracy controls what appears on the service. And is just as dependent on that sponsor for revenue as it would be for any billionaire who had to fund it himself.

                I guess the universe just isn’t obligated to give us any good options.

                • Daemian Lucifer says:

                  Thats a danger when the government has a singular powerful top.With a more divided government,the nationalized news program would not be pulled to hard to either side.Just how courts are (relatively) balanced.

    • Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

      the ability to ‘set the agenda’ has gone completely

      And good riddance. This is the part I miss least about the old days.

      • Lalaland says:

        Oh there’s no denying that the ability to set the agenda is wide open to abuse but on the other hand the obsession with novelty has led us into a whiplash news cycle where the trivial is elevated to the essential. The beat reporter used to be important because it allowed the news organisation to show up cynical back room deals and force every other news organisation to take their lead. “Breaking news” used to mean digging out the important but overlooked story now it simply means “happened in the last 72 hours or so”.

        I mean who cares if “Celebrity X slams Politician Y” but that is a hell of a lot more likely to lead a news bulletin caught in a ratings war than “Obscure committee meeting X votes to defund Popular Project Y”. This in turn effects who gets hired, it’s far cheaper to hire a ‘social media expert’ than someone who has spent years cultivating contacts in the back halls of power. Worse the former is likely to be able to produce at least 1 or 2 clickbait articles a day whereas 1 substantive story from the latter might take months, win a local Pulitzer and never shift another newspaper.

  14. Ninety-Three says:

    That Conan and Archer video gives me the old “The uploader has not made this video available in your country” warning. I poked at it with Hola a bit and got the warning from a few different countries, I think it might be US exclusive, might want to use a different video Shamus.

  15. Fizban says:

    Very interesting, I’d wondered what all had happened with Conan. Problem is I stopped watching late shows a while after I started working till 11pm so I missed a lot of it. There’s plenty of shows that I’ve liked, but a lot of the appeal is in watching them properly on time, a routine landing zone. And being daily shows about current topics they’re not the kind of thing to binge watch, either you’ve been watching the show or you missed out. I can’t spin a schedule out of nothing, so even though I could conceivably pick a show and watch it online every night if I wanted, it’s just not the same, so there’s a whole segment of stuff I used to watch that’s just poof.

    Can extend the same thing to lots of media and culture. Can only follow so much, other stuff passes you by, human condition etc.

  16. Jonathan says:

    These shows must have all been targeted at people without kids. My 2 year old gets up at 7am. I’m in bed before 11 if at all possible.

    What little I saw of them (in college) left me unimpressed. Snark is mockery that comes from weakness and a smug attitude. It’s not really very funny at all.
    What little I’ve also seen of Saturday Night Live (in the same vein) is even worse. Total trash TV. Stupid, gross, often immoral, and not funny.

    • MichaelGC says:

      Not necessarily. I love me some good snark, but hate smugness, which wouldn’t be possible if what you say is always true.

      Snark can be borne of frustration that something could be better, and it can be a humorous way to deal with that frustration whilst possibly even suggesting changes to improve things for future. It can be a way to poke fun at our own foibles, puncturing pomposity (and thus actually counteracting smugness,) helping to level the playing field such that we realise we’re all in this together.

      It can also be mockery, weakness, and smugness; I’m not denying that, but it isn’t always so. For me the key is whether it issues from a good heart, and to a lesser extent, whether it is aimed at a person, or at a thing. Whilst it can be goodnaturedly aimed at a person, the risk of mockery is vastly higher there, and those with good hearts tend to realise this and thus mostly avoid it.

    • Kathryn says:

      Yeah, same here, except my 5yo has to get up at 5:45 to get to school (long story), so I’m in bed as soon after 9 as I can manage. Thankfully, the 8mo sleeps really well (ten hours between bottles already – our 5yo was going only 6 hr at this age).

      There was a time when Saturday Night Live was very funny, and that time was when Jane Curtin was on it. Eddie Murphy was pretty funny, too.

    • Shoeboxjeddy says:

      Tastes definitely differ, but I have no idea what “polite and moral” humor would look like. Humor is basically the act of surprising people by crossing some sort of boundary. Whether that’s a logical boundary, a taste boundary, a culture boundary, whatever.

  17. Cinebeast says:

    I grew up on Leno and Conan, so they’re always going to be the most special to me.

    Well, Conan moreso, since he plays videogames now.

  18. Groboclown says:

    As I’m roughly the same age as Shamus, I was square in that demographic that thought Carson was boring, and loved watching Letterman.

    I don’t hear many people talk about it anymore, but Letterman’s original show aired Monday through Thursday, with the Friday slot going to some other show. The big show was always Thursday, because that’s when he did the letters and top 10 list. When Letterman had his own show on CBS, that was my biggest disappointment, that his top 10 list became an every day thing. At that point, it lost its “specialness” for me and I completely stopped watching those late night talk shows.

  19. Mephane says:

    Thanks for these insights, Shamus. As European and thus completely ignorant about the US late night talk show landscape, the only one I have ever known about so far was the one with Stephen Colbert, and I still keep forgetting the actual name of the show (because these names are all so generic). Can you say something how does he and his show fit into this bit of television history?

  20. Vermander says:

    We did the NBC Studios tour while visiting New York over the holidays. My kids (who are 7 and 5) thought all the technology was cool, but it occurred to me that they have almost no experience with broadcast television and don’t even know what a news desk or talk show set is supposed to look like. When I was their age news anchors, talk show hosts, TV commercials, etc., were all pretty familiar images to most Americans, even little kids. I remember seeing these things parodied on Sesame Street and Duck Tales and understanding what they were supposed to be.

    By contrast, everything my kids watch is on Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube Kids. We don’t have cable, and the only time we usually watch network TV is during major sporting events. I watched a lot of football games with my son this year and he was absolute enraged by the number of commercials. Regular commercial breaks are as foreign to him as pay phones, CDs, and video game cartridges. When we stay at hotels or with relatives who don’t have DVR he also has a hard time remembering that shows can’t be paused or rewound when he has to use the bathroom.

  21. MichaelG says:

    Amusing that you can write an article about things which were so commonplace when I was a kid. Someday you will write an article about VCRs or telephones that sat on your desk, and readers will say “wow, that’s bizarre!”

    • tmtvl says:

      He could write an article about tape decks and people younger than 20 would be weirded out.

    • DaveMc says:

      I was saying to someone the other day that I can see the day coming when I need to explain why their personal data-access device is called a “phone” …

      “Well, Timmy, long ago these things were actually used to make phone calls a lot of the time …”

  22. Son_of_Valhalla says:

    Jimmy Fallon was all the rage when he was first announced. His name was stapled across both video and TV formats.

    • Wide And Nerdy ♤ says:

      I don’t get it at all. He’s never made me laugh. I first saw the guy in my early 20s, when I was too young to be out of the loop and he wasn’t funny then. He doesn’t seem any funnier now.

      • Thomas says:

        Having never watched any of these late night shows, I thought the point of them was not to be very funny :p Talk show hosts say some light inoffensive stuff, interview a celebrity trying to sell something and low and behold your hour has gone and nothing harmed you! From that perspective Jimmy Fallon seems perfect.

        Then again I feel that way, but more bewilderingly, of The Saturday Night Show. So many illustrious comedians, so little comedy.

      • Son_of_Valhalla says:

        Same, and late shows still sucked me in. I was bored in my late teens at midnight, and watching Fallon was something I did to kill time. That or video games.

      • Daimbert says:

        I’ve only seen him a few times — mostly when the more local early morning show put some of his hashtag jokes and the like on — but my impression of him is that he’s a little too impressed with his own jokes; he looks like he finds his own jokes a bit too funny for someone who, presumably, wrote them and thus knew about them already. Really good comedians, in my opinion, look like they aren’t saying anything funny, even though they are.

  23. NFK says:

    Was this article posted previously and then pulled down to keep the schedule consistent? I could swear I’d seen it before on this blog but can’t seem to find it with a cursory search.

    • Shamus says:

      A few weeks ago I was editing this and I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save”. It was live for about 20 seconds.

      I wondered if anyone read it in that time. I guess this answers my question.

  24. Start says:

    That was a fun read. Thanks, Shamus.

  25. marty says:

    Good read.

    I was born in 1982 and, while never watching him, always knew who Carson was. Conan’s style appealed to me much more than Letterman or Leno as a kid and I still think he’s pretty good at what he does, even though I don’t watch him with any sort of regularity. Thank god that his interview with Courtney Thorne-Smith was added to youtube so that people can finally see how funny that was–no one I knew had ever seen it before it was uploaded. His old skits hold up reasonably well, too.

    I think the problem with the late night talk show format is that it’s a variety show in an age where a lot of people’s tastes have become more specific (which is allowed much more broadly thanks to the internet). Podcasts, in particular, offer a lot more in terms of interviews and comedy. There are countless songs you have or haven’t heard readily available on youtube and other sites. If you follow comedians on twitter, you’ll hear the same kind of jokes about current events that you’d get from an opening monologue.

  26. Gawain The Blind says:

    The best part of the Conan/Leno feud was David Letterman skewering NBC every single night, just over and over again, for the duration of the transition. It was as merciless as Letterman has ever been, and it was glorious. It must have been like an early Christmas to Dave, to be able to slap NBC around with impunity from his throne at CBS.

    Also, I think it should be noted that Leno was even more inoffensive and family friendly than Carson was. He was the milquetoast of late night, the pablum of talk show hosts. He would basically come on and do a slew of dad jokes and then interview an utterly bland and non-threatening movie star and then hit you with more dad jokes. The best episodes of the Leno run were when shit would unintentionally go off the rails, usually because the guest turned out to be not as bland as advertised. And Leno would really shine then too- he was doing the cream-of-wheat version of late night tv on purpose, but he was legitimately funny when having to struggle to deal with something unexpected.

  27. WWWebb says:

    The music industry was basically this times 100. Occasionally I try to explain to my kids just how big a deal Michael Jackson was. They can understand “Taylor Swift has tens of millions of fans”, but the cultural dominance of Michael (more like a BILLION fans) is something we just do not (and will not) see anymore.

    Taylor Swift is competing with the Hollywood and sports A-lists. Michael Jackson was competing with Coke and McDonald’s.

  28. WWWebb says:

    I’ve also got to wonder about the evolution of the guests.

    I imagine Carson could pick and choose whoever he (or NBC) wanted. I remember TV ads promoting the Tonight Show based on who the guest was…and it WAS a big deal because we rarely got to see or hear about those celebrities outside of their medium (unless you read tabloids, but that was tacky).

    These days the “talk show circuit” is seen as a standard part of the media promotion playbook. If you have a book/movie/new show/etc coming out, you get your telegenic star out on as many talk shows (late night or otherwise) as possible the week it comes out. The well-coached guests are there to get in their 30 second pitch that their producer or publisher wrote, then deflect any questions that might cause bad publicity.

    I know that guests are paid for their appearance (SAG rules), but for some of these shows, I wonder if at some point the publishers will be paying to get them on the guest list in the first place. Will the demand for cheap, current content become less than the need for mass publicity? I suppose that the more talk shows there are, the greater the need for cheap content…

  29. Torolf says:

    Even for someone who neither watches television nor stays up late other than when required to by work, I enjoyed the mini-history the late night television show. Please feel free to write more historical pieces like this.

  30. Rymdsmurfen says:

    Very interesting read. I knew there was some drama related to Leno, Letterman and Conan, but (living in Europe) I never got the details of it when it happended.

  31. Rayen says:

    It’s weird to recognize yourself as a statistic. that 2.5 conan was pulling? that was me. I stuck with him through the transition as did most of his audience seemingly ratings still tanked. after he left so did i. I haven’t watched late night TV much since (outside the daily show).
    Side note on the supplanting, it is amazing to think about how much my TV watching has dwindled over the years. I used to know what was on at any given time on a lot of channels 10 years ago. The only TV shows i watch reguraly now are Hell’s Kitchen, Masterchef, and NFL pregame*.

    *Incidentally the Steelers are doing well, im sure your brother is happy.

  32. Harper says:

    Wasn’t Albert Brooks a contender to replace Johnny Carson? He was his Golden Boy for a while, made him laugh hard every time he came on.
    I just found clips of Brooks doing Carson and I’m amazed that he didn’t have as big a career as people like Seinfield and Shandling

  33. Scott Schulz says:

    Here’s a sound track for this article, though it only covers the first third or so.

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