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NBC, Cancel "Late Night" Already!
NBC programmers has been responsible for some of the dumbest decisions in television history. The cancellation of Star Trek. The airing of the series Supertrain. And perhaps the dumbest decisions in the network's history surrounding their Tonight Show franchise.
Hard to believe, but a couple of decades ago NBC had no real competition beyond 11pm. CBS was content showing 15 year old reruns of McMillan and Wife and other episodes of the NBC Mystery Movie, while ABC was content with Nightline. Back in the 60s Johnny Carson took over as the host of The Tonight Show, gradually elevating it from NBC's after prime time experiment into a well respected talk show. Both ABC and CBS made attempts to compete with their own talk shows, but by the 70s simply ceded late night programming to the Tonight Show jugernaught.
But Johnny Carson was mortal. He could not host The Tonight Show forever. By the time he was approaching his 60s he began to think about his retirement. Not that he planned to retire any time soon, but he knew it was not that far away. He wanted to chose the host that would replace him, and his choice was David Letterman. A new show, Late Night, was created both to keep Letterman under contract, and as training for his eventual promotion as host of The Tonight Show. By the end of the decade Letterman had built his own fan base, and was more than ready to move to 11:30.
But NBC executives made the ultimate blunder. The Tonight's Show's permanent guest host was Jay Leno, who substituted for Johnny during his vacations. The former permanent guest host, Joan Rivers, left NBC for FOX in an attempt to compete against Carson with her own talk show, The Late Show. NBC lucked out when FOX fired Rivers for refusing to fire her show's producer ( who happened to be her husband ), not keeping her around as the host of The Late Show long enough to steal Carson's viewers. Now NBC feared that Leno would also defect to FOX once his contract was up. Carson was pressured into retiring, and to appease Leno, he was named as the new host of The Tonight Show. NBC executives expected Letterman to continue as host of Late Night.
Rightfully upset that the show he had been promised was given to another comedian, Letterman decided to move to another network once his contract was up. CBS, which was still airing reruns of the NBC Mystery Movie decided, for the first time since the 1960s, to compete against The Tonight Show. After all, it's long time host Johnny Carson was now gone, and Letterman had already built a following from his stint on Late Night. Letterman's new CBS show aired during the same tie slot as The Tonight Show, and while the later eventually began to beat it in the ratings, about half of it's viewers were lost to Letterman's show.
At this point NBC should have cancelled Late Night and used that time slot for something else, perhaps reclaiming their old Mystery Movie episodes now that CBS was no longer airing them. But instead they chose to hire a new host, Conan O'Brien. But what was Late Night if not a training ground for The Tonight Show? After a rocky start, Conan O'Brien eventually learned his craft and became an exceptional talk show host. A good enough host that, once his contract was up, could easily take his show, and his viewers, to any rival network.
NBC had not learned their lesson. But Leno had. Leno refused to hire any guest hosts. There would be no one from his show to defect to FOX, or attempt to dethrone him. There would be no more permanent guest hosts demanding to become the permanent host, or else.
Now fearing that O'Brien would go to a rival network, they pressured Leno to retire, and gave O'Brien The Tonight Show. But while publicly Leno was praising Conan as his replacement, behind the scenes he was refusing to leave. To nudge him out of The Tonight Show, NBC had to promise him a prime time slot. Jay Leno's prime time talk show aired every weeknight at 10pm. NBC had hoped it would be a hit, but it wasn't. NBC was stuck in a bad position. Leno's ratings were a disaster. But if they cancelled him then he could go to a rival network and compete against The Tonight Show. Their solution was to bump The Tonight Show with Conan back to 12:30, and move Leno back into his old Tonight Show time slot. They thought that Conan would go along with this.
Once Conan was off The Tonight Show, he immediately began negotiating with other networks, eventually accepting an offer from TBS for a 11pm talk show. Now NBC had two former Late Night hosts stealing ratings from The Tonight Show. And you would think that NBC learned their lesson. But they didn't.
Instead of cancelling Late Night when Conan moved to The Tonight Show, they hired a new host, actor and former Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon. Once again the new Late Night host had a rocky start. Once again he was able to learn his craft and build a fan base. Once again NBC realized he could now defect to a rival network once his contract was up. And once again they are planning to retire Jay Leno and make Jimmy Fallon the new Tonight Show host. And if you expect this transition to go smoothly then don't hold your breath.
NBC's problem is that Late Night is a training ground for new Talk Show hosts. It takes persons who have no experience at hosting a talk show and turns them into popular talk show hosts. But these are all hosts who fully expect to be promoted. And if there is no promotion to The Tonight Show, then the only other alternative is work for a rival, taking viewers with him. NBC still has not figured this flaw out. They are looking for a new host for Late Night, and reportedly they are looking at Howard Stern.
But no matter who takes over as host of Late Night, NBC will face the same problem in the next five years. By then the new host will have built his viewers up enough that rival networks and syndicators will be knocking at his door. And the only way for NBC to top their offers is to promise The Tonight Show. But they can't do that and hope the current Tonight Show host will permanently retire as Johnny did.
NBC needs only one host for The Tonight Show. They do not need rival hosts on rival shows. But that is just what Late Night creates, rival hosts. As long as Late Night exists, this problem will persist. What NBC should do, once Fallon has vacated the slot, is to cancel Late Night for good. Use the time slot for something else, anything else. Perhaps even expanding The Tonight Show back to it's original 2 hours. Late Night does not have the prestige of The Tonight Show, so it's cancellation would be no great loss. But continue to hire new hosts and every five years NBC will run into the same mess.