Too Late for The Late Show

"The Tonight Show" and all other late night talk shows are no longer relevant.

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NBC passes Jay Leno’s (left) “Tonight Show” seat on to Jimmy Fallon, hoping to build a new following for the late night TV format. NBC passes Jay Leno’s (left) “Tonight Show” seat on to Jimmy Fallon, hoping to build a new following for the late night TV format.

Jimmy Fallon isn’t the answer. Fallon, who was just named as Jay Leno’s replacement on “The Tonight Show,” is likeable enough. But he’s not the solution to NBC’s ratings woes—in February sweeps, the network posted its worst rating among the coveted 18 to 49 demographic ever—because it doesn’t matter who occupies the seat on “The Tonight Show.” The late show format doesn’t have the same cultural presence it used to, which is why eventually they’ll all disappear.

The decline of the late show started in 2010, with the Leno/Conan O’Brien drama. Citing poor ratings, NBC’s execs said they were going to move “The Jay Leno Show” into the 11:35pm slot and O’Brien’s “The Tonight Show” to 12:05am. O’Brien proclaimed that he’d rather quit than be forced to the new slot, and so he did. Leno then took over “The Tonight Show.” On Twitter and Facebook, people cried out in protest. They blasted Leno and shouted that O’Brien was wronged. But ironically enough, if all those people who said they loved O’Brien and “The Tonight Show” were actually watching, none of it would’ve happened.

O’Brien started his own late night show, “Conan,” on TBS. By 2011, it was fourth in ratings. Just like before, no one was tuning in. Things got so bad that TBS execs purchased “The Big Bang Theory” reruns and aired them before “Conan,” just to get ratings up. The gamble seems to have worked, as “Conan” was recently extended through 2015. But that isn’t a sign of how good the show is; it’s a sign that TBS has nothing better to offer.

The great tuning out isn’t O’Brien’s—or Leno’s—fault. It’s the program itself. Say Lindsay Lohan tweets that she wants to marry a tree. Unfortunately, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. By the time a young adult turns on a late show to hear jokes about the incident, he’s already read hundreds online. The late show used to update people about current events, but the Internet—and especially social media—takes care of that these days.

When I asked Laurie Thurneck, a professor of Communications Studies at PVCC, about this phenomenon, she agreed. “In this case, ‘The Tonight Show’ may be losing viewers because the show is no longer appealing to the needs of the younger demographic in a way that is meaningful to them,” she explained.

When Fallon takes over “The Tonight Show” in 2014, there’ll be an initial ratings surge, but things will settle down. “The Tonight Show” could still lead in the late night show ratings, but being the best of a programming dinosaur will not save it from extinction.

Hosts Who Would Make Me Watch Late Night Shows

Tracy Morgan. The over/under on number of episodes that air before Morgan would get kicked off the show for saying something offensive is set at seven. Take the under.

Amy Poehler. Possesses the unique ability to deliver smart comedy.

Bill Clinton. Two words: Sax solos. Actually, scratch that. Five words: Sexy sax solos every episode.

Denzel Washington. O.K., there’s no reason for him. But c’mon. He’s so f*cking cool. Each monologue could just be “Hi, I’m Denzel.” And I’d be like “Aw yeah son!”

  • robweeve

    Late shows used to be filled with conversation, weren’t used as shameless soapboxes for plugging an actor’s latest movie or singer’s just released album. Maybe it’s time to rediscover the art of conversation.

  • esteban

    First, it’s a tired format, that reached it’s peak when Johnny Carson was still on the air, and today, kids are downloading and watching shows online, not staying up late to tune in Jay Leno or Conan. Finally, these guys are not funny, they have no timing, no delivery, and in Fallon’s case, his show looks like a skit on SNL about a lame talk show host. The only really decent show on late night, (that has any originality, like David Letterman had when he was at NBC) is Craig Ferguson.

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