Where does late night go from here? Well we know it’s going younger -- in terms of the hosts -- the 40-something Jimmy Kimmel and the 30-something Jimmy Fallon now at 11:35 will tell you that.
But this is 2014 -- not 1993. Late night is no longer a young-skewing daypart for broadcasters. For example, when Jay Leno started with “The Tonight Show” in 1993, the show’s viewer median age was 44.9. This year it’s 57.8. Most other late-night offerings are at the same level, though Letterman’s “Late Night” show skewed younger than that.
Even those young late night fans have other options -- and it isn’t about time-shifting, which isn’t necessary since YouTube can deliver pretty much the best bits of the previous night’s offerings.
Fallon’s NBC “Tonight Show” has now proven late night can be more about variety skits than talk -- something which Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien have also done. Maybe that’s the new direction. Or maybe it’s more political -- which is currently Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s domain.
When Letterman started in the ‘80s, he took it all to a different level with his “Late Night” on NBC, which ran from 1982 to 1993. Back then many believed Letterman couldn’t be a replacement for Carson, because of his sometime combativeness with guests and crankiness. Too edgy, people thought. We can now view this as quaint.
For two years starting on CBS in 1993, Letterman proved to be a winner, besting “The Tonight Show” -- the place he really wanted to be. Jay Leno had somewhat the last word, though, from a business ratings point of view. For more than a decade and a half after that he was the clear leader.
But Leno didn’t have it all. We know Jay Leno didn’t really want to depart “The Tonight Show” -- surely not the first time when Conan O’Brien came in. And not really the second time around, most recently with Fallon arriving. Both were NBC executives’ decision.
You may wonder if history will regard Leno the same way at Letterman. At 66 years old, with 31 years doing the late night job -- longer in total number of years than Johnny Carson -- Letterman pretty much ran his own game, never having to deal with the crap Leno went through in recent years.
CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves said he would never ask Letterman to leave because that’s not how you talk to a “television legend.” Moonves would leave it up to Letterman when and where he would leave.
How many longtime TV performers get to do that these days? The only one in this category was perhaps Johnny Carson. Against that backdrop, look at Letterman in a different way -- and realize he got pretty much what he wanted in the first place.