The Late Night Wars

I started watching the late night shows after hearing that Jay Leno was replacing Johnny Carson at the Tonight Show and not David Letterman, who went to CBS after that decision. I didn’t watch the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Late Night with David Letterman because I was already in bed and I was a kid.

I got interested in the late night wars from the backstage politics in Bill Carter’s book, “The Late Shift;” and later on, the TV movie where Kathy Bates portrayed the scariest TV character ever as Helen Kushnick, Jay Leno’s agent. You can tell from the start Letterman was the better overall host than Leno. When Letterman started, he was the late-night king…until O.J. came in.

When O.J. Simpson case came, Leno took off with tons of O.J. jokes and Dancing Itos and never looked back. It was then people realize Leno can be topical and want . meanwhile, Letterman never did one joke of the O.J. Simpson case because it involved murder. At that moment, Letterman dropped to number 2 in the late-night ratings, even joke that he was #3:

via Washington Post

Between the years, Leno has been atop of the ratings and Letterman had moments he will be on top such as the show when he returned from quintuple bypass surgery, 9/11, the birth of his son, Oprah’s return, his marriage, his extortion, and others.

I have debated with my friends why the untalented Leno is beating Letterman in the ratings. It range from:

  • The O.J. Simpson case
  • Local news affiliate ratings
  • The NFL
  • Letterman’s Oscar performance

But we all agree Leno has done perfectly well dumbing down his old comedic act and reach middle America. This is why Leno has been atop the ratings because he has distinguish himself from the other talk show hosts (not to be meant as a compliment). On the other hand, Letterman is beloved by critics, media, other comedians, and loyal fans. His old and current show is now influence to other talk shows. However, his influence has saturated throughout TV, it has cost him some of his audience.

This leads to where we are now. if the late night wars were crazy in the 90s, it’s much crazier today. The whole thing started actually in 2004 when Conan O’Brien renew his contract with NBC, but in that contract, it states he will get the Tonight Show in 2009 after Leno “retires” or NBC has to pay large sums of money to Conan. Fast forward to 2009, Leno was moved to the 10PM spot to boost NBC’s primetime ratings and Conan got the Tonight Show. After disappointing ratings for both shows, NBC decided to move Leno back to the Tonight Show and gave a huge buyout to Conan. After a few months from being booted from the Tonight Show, Conan signed on with TBS.

Fast forward to today and Leno is getting the boot again; this time to Jimmy Fallon. NBC was worried about losing the 18-49 audience to ABC and Jimmy Kimmel, hence they want to make the move now. It looks like a smoother transition than in 2009.

People are wondering why remove Leno from the Tonight Show again, although he has the highest ratings of all the late-night shows? Look at the demographics: not one late-night show, with the exception of Conan, has an average age of their viewers below 40 (none of the broadcast network late-night talk shows average age is below 50) with Leno being one of the highest with his average age of 59. This doesn’t mean people are watching the shows; they are watching in different ways, mostly on the web. By that standard, Leno has the one of the oldest audiences and has no buzz on his shows online. It was smart for NBC trying to make the transition now.

So now we’re back in the late night wars, but unlike previous years, there’s much variety and it depends on your preference. Here’s I see each host:

Jimmy Fallon: the most entertaining host of the bunch, but a terrible interviewer. He will not offend anyone and seems like a genuine guy, unlike Leno, although his “meme” doing a duet with Leno was awkward and felt forced. He is the younger version of Leno, except that he never hid in a closet.

Jimmy Kimmel: A Letterman fan and emulates most of his stuff. He has become a better interviewer and his “fight” with Matt Damon is very entertaining. His next step is if he can get an interview with a newsmaker like the President or Secretary of State and have depth. He has not been tested yet.

Jon Stewart: Arguably the most popular host with his format, although it feels like an ensemble cast and him playing the ringmaster. Although he does get big guests, his interviews seems to have too much thinking. The past year or so, he seems grown tired of the job and could be why he’s taking a leave of absence to make a movie.

Conan O’Brien: The forgotten late night host (like I just did) on TBS. Although he has the smallest audience, his average age of viewers is below 40 and still gets traction from online videos. His show has become routine, but has become a better interviewer than anyone expected.

Stephen Colbert: Probably the best all-around host out there now. He can do skits; pull jokes with ease; handle interviews, big and small; very quick and witty. The only question is if this is caricature or mostly himself? Sometimes, he blurs the line between both, but it could be why I view his show as the only one you can watch from start to finish.

Craig Ferguson: If Stephen Colbert represents the David Letterman of the past, Craig Ferguson represents the Letterman of the present. Ferguson is relatable and will connect the audience through jokes, skits, and his personal stories. He can be on and off on most of his segments, but his interviews are the best; either flirting with a woman or serious talk with the likes of Desmond Tutu and others. He’s the likely successor of Letterman. Speaking of Letterman…

David Letterman: the old Letterman was an original. The now 66-year old Letterman is a shell of its old self, but he can be still entertaining. You can skip the first 20 minutes of the show as Letterman is milking it in and doesn’t participate or write his skits anymore. It’s the last 40 minutes that keeps it interesting. His interviews can go hot or cold depends on the guest, but that what makes it great because he will tell if the conversation stinks or not.

Since Leno is leaving, there are two questions left open:

  1. Who will replace Jimmy Fallon on Late Night?
  2. When will Letterman retire?

On who will replace Fallon; the money is on Seth Meyers of SNL, but the problem with Seth isn’t that he’s talented, but can NBC have two late night shows or can Seth go to L.A. to do that show? This is why I think Kevin Hart might be the choice as he’s from the west coast, has a lot of celebrity friends, and does a different show than Fallon. Then again, Lorne Michaels will have the final say.

On when will Letterman retire; that’s actually up in the air. I really think Letterman will want to stay until Leno is really retired or moved to Fox, where he becomes irrelevant. If Fallon does get behind Letterman in the ratings, NBC might want to ask Leno to be back, but I don’t think it would happen because Fallon has the right schtick for middle America. When that situation is cleared up, I think Letterman will be thinking about retirement, but seeing his idol, Johnny Carson, struggle with retirement, Letterman will likely delay that until his heart or his health is really not into it.

Another thing Letterman won’t retire anytime soon: CBS. CBS has no need for the young demographics as their audiences skews older than the rest of the networks, so there’s no rush. Also, CBS would want a conversationalist to join Ferguson when Letterman retires and those are hard to come by. If Letterman does retire soon, I think Bonnie Hunt or Alec Baldwin (check his podcast) would get a shot, but if Letterman stays this long and retires 5-10 years from now, Stephen Colbert is the likely replacement if he wants it.

To get attention, you must do something that will be talk about tomorrow. With videos and social media, the late-night shows are adjusting to that format to have their sound bites instead of focusing on the whole show. This is what I fear what talk shows are going to be from here on out. This is why the days of Carson and Letterman are likely long gone. There will be people who come close, but won’t have the impact like the old guard had.


Alec Baldwin’s conversation with David Letterman

Bill Simmons with Bill Carter

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