Late Night Talk Shows Are Dying

Alan Sepinwall on Jimmy Fallon taking over The Tonight Show:

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

There have been a lot of articles about “late night” TV floating around in the last couple of weeks, mostly based on the news Sepinwall discusses, that Jimmy Fallon will take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno in 2014. It seems like NBC has been down this road before. Oh right, when they handed the keys of the franchise to Conan O’Brien and then took them back a year later when it didn’t work out.

In all honesty, it wasn’t completely Conan’s fault. When he negotiated his new contract in 2004 part of the deal was that he would take over The Tonight Show in 2009. The landscape was so much different in 2004 though. Even though the internet was taking off, it still wasn’t mainstream. And the idea of consuming large quantities of video online hadn’t remotely taken off yet either. The Colbert Report didn’t exist, and as popular as The Daily Show was, it was still growing. Conan had a young following and it make perfect sense to pretty much everyone that he was “the guy” to take The Tonight Show to a new generation.

By the time he actually took over in 2009, things were very different. There were so many more places/ways to consume video content, and comedy had become such a different animal1 that traditional avenues just weren’t as appealing to a younger crowd. Sitting through a monologue or fairly simple jokes, and cookie cutter interviews with celebs who were only there to promote their latest work is just not interesting. As a result, Conan bombed, Leno came back, Conan went to TBS, and is pretty much irrelevant at this point.

Part of the problem is that the idea of the late night talkshow just seems dead. Johnny Carson went off the air in 1992. That means anyone under the age of about 25 probably never even saw him on TV. There are likely very few people under 35 who remember much, and certainly none who were big fans of his. What was once the ultimate dream job for many is now the equivalent of being the heavyweight champ: most people know it means something, but it doesn’t have much historical significance anymore.

As for the future of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon will probably do OK. It’s likely his ratings won’t be as high as Leno’s, at least out of the gate. He should still fair better than he does in his later time slot though. Unless he is contemplating a career change there is no reason not to do this, but this certainly is not going to create some sort of late night talk show renaissance. Like boxing, these shows will hang around because (they seem) cheap to create, they fill a time slot that not a lot of things would be successful in, and there is a certain group of people who still enjoy them. But it’s difficult to see The Tonight Show existing in it’s current format 10 years from now.

  1. Look at the state of sitcoms now vs. 10 years ago []