Jay Leno returns to “The Tonight Show” berth Monday night, but the late-night television landscape has changed dramatically since the last time he ascended to this coveted seat back in 1992, when Johnny Carson departed.
Cable, Internet, and the DVR have fragmented audiences. A whole new generation of media consumers has grown up with little, if any, broadcast-network loyalty. And comics such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher have moved comedy light-years past the amiable PG-ness of an earlier era.
NBC, now mired in fourth place among networks, has suffered more than most. And the perceived nastiness of the tussle between Mr. Leno and Conan O’Brien for the 11:35 p.m. slot has not helped the network. (Monitor report on how Leno-O'Brien feud hurt NBC.)
“No matter how they paint this pig, the last-place network has lost a huge swath of TV-watchers,” says Richard Laermer, author of “Punk Marketing” and “Trend Spotting 2011.”
“Jay Leno’s return to late-night will be tarnished,” says John O’Leary, who teaches communications at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “One of the most salient aspects of Leno’s public persona was his image as a nice, humble guy. Now, because of the controversy with Conan O’Brien, he comes across as somewhat selfish and opportunistic.”
Younger viewers resent O'Brien's treatment
It doesn’t help that today’s TV viewers are far more fickle, he adds. “As the TV audience gets put into more and more fragmented pieces, I don’t see Leno being able to garnish impressive ratings. He will have lost some of the older members of the television audience, and many of the younger members will certainly resent the way he helped to force Conan out.” (More in the Monitor on O'Brien's fans.)
But most expect the drama surrounding Leno’s return to fizzle soon, says James Hibberd, senior online editor for The Hollywood Reporter. Leno and late-night host David Letterman have already wisecracked plenty about the turn of events. “After a few nights of jokes about each other,” he adds, “no doubt they will slip back into their old routines.”
Here is where things are likely to stand after the smoke clears from the late-night wars, according to top TV analysts and pundits:
O’Brien's absence from the late-night mix is an unfortunate casualty of the fracas, points out Mr. Hibberd, although most observers expect him to return, in some form, down the road. But this late-night soap opera has underlined some good news for the broadcast industry.
“Network prime-time still means something, even in this super multichannel universe,” says Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, director of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, Pa. People still aren't ready to abandon prime-time programming on the traditional network powerhouses to the usual late-night shtick, he says.
What future for late-night TV?
“The late-night format works for the comedian/host entertainment format because it is still relatively inexpensive to produce [compared with dramas and sitcoms] and is uniquely designed for an audience that is bound to shrink as viewers go to bed,” says Mr. DeWerth-Pallmeyer. “There is no downside to turning off the late-night shows because there is no real story line that viewers believe they are losing out on by going to bed."
Still, late-night TV and Leno survive because they make for great "comfort food" in the nostalgic sense that baby boomers have learned to rely on from their first memories of Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, or even Steve Allen.
What’s the future of late-night television?
“The success of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert reveals that combining conventions from different types of program genres can be fruitful,” says Mr. O’Leary. “Stewart has found a way to combine humor with the conventions of a political-analysis program. I suspect that we will see more of this. Perhaps a sports show that mingles with the conventions of a comedy show.”