|TV Guide - David Letterman Article
Even though Johnny Carson's retirement is still a year away, the sudden announcement that he will be leaving The Tonight
Show May 22, 1992, has thrown the world of late-night television into turmoil. New shows are being prepared for the fall and a wide range of personalities -- from disc jockeys to comedians -- are getting ready to establish themselves as alternatives in the event that Carson's successor, Jay Leno, sees his audience shrink.
"Opportunities will open up if Leno isn't able to hold Carson's ratings," says Larry Gerbrandt, a media analyst with Paul Kagan Associates. "If he can hold the transition, those other shows won't have a chance. Carson built the fort; can Leno defend it?"
But some critics are asking: Would David Letterman have been a better choice? Earlier this month, NBC executives Warren Littlefield and John Agoglia flew from Los Angeles to New York so that they could personally tell the iconoclastic host of Late Night with David Letterman that they'd chosen Leno as Carson's replacement.
Letterman was reportedly shocked at the news. His shock quickly turned to anger. Although Letterman will not comment,
behind-the-scenes figures say he was "angrier than anyone had ever seen him." The result: he has supposedly threatened to
depart NBC and has instructed his Hollywood lawyer to see if he can get out of the contract that binds him to the network until 1993.
Carson himself remains publicly noncommittal about the choice of his successor. But insiders say he wanted Letterman.
"He's acutely embarrassed," says one source. "Nobody even consulted him."
"Many people think Letterman is much better at interviews and that Leno is just a comedian," says an NBC insider. "And by picking Leno over Letterman, NBC didn't just shoot itself in the foot -- it shot itself in the belly."
Some, maybe most, NBC affiliates disagree. "I think it's an excellent move," says L.A. Sturdivant, general manager of WMGT-TV in Macon, GA. "Jay is accepted in that period and should be able to bring in more younger viewers."
In fact, since Leno took over as permanent guest host for Carson in 1987, the difference between his ratings and Carson's has been "less than the width of a Wheaties flake," says Bob Niles, an NBC vice-president. And so Leno couldn't have been too surprised that he was chosen to replace Carson. But the timing of the announcement did catch him off guard. Carson unexpectedly announced his retirement not to NBC but to an April gathering at a network-affiliate meeting. "I was performing in Lake Tahoe," recalls Leno, "and when I got off the stage at midnight, my manager, Helen Kushnick, called and said: 'Johnny's leaving.'"
Leno was as stunned as the top executives at NBC. "You're kidding! You're kidding!" he screamed. Within three days, a
90-page contract was on Leno's desk waiting to be signed. The deal: a two-year commitment to host the show five days a week with three weeks off for vacation. Leno is happy. He's had good fortune. But he wishes the reaction of Letterman and Carson could be different. Letterman is a friend. "He's mad (at NBC), but I don't think he's mad that I got the show. I hope there's no animosity toward me."
Perhaps Letterman should heed the adage "Don't get mad, get even." Both CBS and ABC are reportedly courting him for a talk show that would go head-to-head with Tonight. And otherrivals are already beginning to stake out their claims. "I'm looking for every late-night gunfighter in the world to issue a challenge and get a piece of the pie," says Arsenio Hall. The one contender who has succeeded in carving out a niche for a syndicated talk show opposite Carson, Hall seems likely to continue to draw a predominantly young audience.
Some industry sources, however, think The Arsenio Hall Show is past its peak as a worthy alternative to The Tonight Show. "Its ratings have dropped 20 percent over the past year," points out media buyer Bill Carroll. "This summer will really be the test of whether it can hold in there." If it can, the new contenders may have trouble making it in syndication. They include:
*The Dennis Miller Show. The former star of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend update" segment will bring his acerbic, topical humor to his own show in January. "He's a very funny guy," says Los Angeles Times TV critic Rick Du Brow, "but his appeal might be limited, based on Saturday Night Live. It will all depend on the execution."
*Johnny B...on the Loose. Rather than a standard talk show, Chicago disk jockey, Jonathan Brandmeier, promises something far more spontaneous. "With so many talk shows, I'd be crazy to try and compete" on that level, he says. Johnny B will feature its host in zany situations, often going out into the streets with a camera crew.
*The Ron Reagan Show. MCA is backing Reagan in his own talk show, in what observers consider a long shot. They point
to Reagan's inexperience and doubt that his famous name will be enough to lure viewers to the show. Reagan, of course,
disagrees. "We're gambling that if you can present an intelligent talk format, people will stay up and watch it. We may be wrong." They may well be. But late-night supremacy will not be determined by the quality of the host alone. The competition
is not only between talk-show personalities but also between different kinds of programs.
On CBS, the experimental Crime Time (a different one-hour action drama Monday through Friday) has proved a modest success and could be given a shot in the arm when CBS replaces two of its shows (The Exile and Fly by Night) with new
programs (which are as yet undetermined.)
On ABC, Into the Night with Rick Dees has been disappointing, but the show may get a boost with a new host (a strong replacement is being sought for the departed Dees) and a fresh approach. The network is tinkering with different format ideas, favoring at the moment satire and comedy over couches and conversation. ABC has also launched a 14-week series of rock concerts on Friday nights.
With millions of ad dollars at stake -- and potentially more for a runaway hit -- winners of the late-night competition will reap huge benefits. For Leno, taking over as host of the most successful program in late-night history, the risks are enormous. "I haven't been fitted for the crown yet," he laughs, "because I don't know how people will feel about me in a year. The one thing I know for sure is, I'm ready. And I'm not scared."
Wheeeere's Johnny? Carson's final season
While Carson pretenders scurry to pick up his sceptre, what will Carson himself do during the last year of his Tonight Show reign? Pretty much what he always does. Though Carson hasn't discussed his plans, associates say he intends to continue hosting Tonight three nights a week and to preside over his 29th anniversary show in October. Is there anything big in store for Carson's last show? "That's up to Johnny," says Rick Ludwin, NBC's senior vice-president for specials and variety programming. "It wouldn't surprise me if his last Tonight was a normal show."
That might not surprise NBC, but it certainly would disappoint the network. NBC would like nothing better than a prime-time closing show: the May 22 departure date just happens to be at the end of a 1992 ratings sweeps period. And what about Carson's life in retirement? He's had several movie offers (comedies) and his Carson Productions company is likely to produce TV specials. He also owns the rights to hundreds of Tonight Shows, which he is free to syndicate in 1993.
The night according to Jay
The Tonight Show will be changing. When Carson leaves at the end of next season, veteran sidekick Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen will leave with him. Jay Leno already has his eye on replacements.
One possibility: Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey. Leno is also considering SNL's Jan Hooks, who recently signed to join the cast of CBS's Designing Women. One certainty: Leno will change the dynamic established by the Carson/McMahon team. He will not perform in the kind of character sketches that Carson made famous. "I'll be the straight man," says Leno. "And my sidekick will be the comic, giving him a chance to shine."
In terms of interview technique, Leno will continue to avoid low blows. He'll also avoid racist and sexist humor. "I don't do wife jokes and I don't do Dolly Parton jokes," he Says. Not surprisingly, then, Leno will have a woman as executive
producer -- his manager, Helen Kushnick.
Additionally, Leno plans to change the show's theme music, co-written by Paul Anka and Carson -- he says it's too closely
associated with Johnny. "It's like hearing 'Thanks for the Memories' and seeing Howie Mandel come out instead of Bob
Hope." There will be no guest hosts until Leno is firmly established (no one expected any), and Leno will focus less on
stars and more on unknown performers and "civilians" (like former surgeon general C. Everett Koop).
Beyond that, don't expect too many changes. Even Arsenio Hall agrees with that. "America doesn't seem to handle drastic change," he says. "If I were Jay, I would change my last name to Carson, find a guy that looks like Ed McMahon, and stay as close to The Tonight Show tradition as possible."
|"The battle for Carson's Crown"
"Sizing up the major contenders for the late-night thrown"
"Up close and personal with Jay Leno: The man NBC's picked to fill Johnny's shoes"
"One year and counting: A look ahead at Carson's final shows"
"Now that Carson is calling it quits ... Look who's scrambling to become the next king of late-night TV: David Letterman, Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, Jonathon Brandmeier, Dennis Miller, Ron Reagan"
By STEPHEN GALLOWAY, MARY MURPHY and TIMOTHY CARLSON
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|June 29th 1991|
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