The Year Of Big Transitions


This has turned into a year of major transitions. It includes the change from George Bush to Barack Obama, but heads of state come and go and there are even bigger transitions. In Great Britain the major transition comes when The Doctor regenerates, with the change from David Tenant to Matt Smith occurring on Doctor Who later this year. Here in the United States a key transition is when there is a change in the host of The Tonight Show.

Tonight is Jay Leno’s last night as host. While an event of note, this day is minor compared to seventeen years ago when Johnny Carson stepped down. It  is largely because of Carson’s legacy that tonight is even of significance. While Johnny was the undisputed king of late night, Leno has had to share the time spot with David Letterman, and the shows airing later are of increasing significance. Many see the upcoming move by Conan O’Brian as being the key event here. Besides, Jay Leno is no Johnny Carson. Even if  many people cared about  Leno leaving The Tonight Show it is not the virtual farewell to television as when Johnny Carson stepped down seventeen years ago. Leno is just moving to 10:00.


While the previous transition was more significant, this one is being handled much better by NBC. While Leno got Carson’s  job, David Letterman was believed to be Johnny’s choice to take over. Letterman certainly thought the job should be his, and wound up leaving the network. Carson stepped down with Bette Midler as his final actual guest and performed a monologue without guests for his final episode. In contrast Conan will be Jay’s guest tonight. When Johnny did make a brief  appearance on television after retiring, it was on The Late Show with David Letterman during a visit to the west coast, not on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.


By snubbing David Letterman, a guy who never forgets a slight (just ask John McCain), NBC lost Letterman to CBS. NBC was determined to avoid such a fiasco again and the plans for Conan to take over at this time had been determined long ago. The only flaw with the plan was that Jay Leno was not ready to retire. After years of saving money by airing not-so-realistic “reality shows” as opposed to conventional prime time shows, NBC realized they could save a lot of money by giving Leno the 10:00 p.m. slot. This was especially easy to do as NBC has been down creatively for several years and this spares them the trouble of finding shows to fill all those hours.

Sometimes transitions are dominated by certain sources. If Virginia for many years was the mother of presidents, Late Night has become the traning ground for the top late night shows. The 11:30 spot will now become a competition between the last two hosts of the show.

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