I remember when Conan O’Brien was announced as the successor of Jay Leno, and I sat there thinking that it was the new generation’s turn to take over network television by giving one of their own the biggest throne. Conan represented the goofy alternative that was synonymous with kids growing up through the 1990s. To replace Leno – the most mainstream of all television personalities – with Conan was to mark a shift in television culture itself. Of course, Conan tanked (or NBC didn’t allow him the time not to tank, if you see it that way), Leno came back and late night went right back to square one. What the failed Conan experiment proved was that audiences were not ready for anything other than what they already knew when it came to late night shows. Leno and Letterman. It was always just going to be Leno and Letterman.
One could argue that Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have changed that fact, that the two media-savvy replacements have brought fresh voices to a stale genre. However, Kimmel still remains unlikeable to the majority of audiences, and I would presume the Fallon model of creating viral videos every night will run cold when younger audiences catch on that everything is being done as a calculated attempt to accumulate YouTube hits*. To say that either hosts or Stephen Colbert will carry the torch is optimistic at best. The most groomed, experienced and talented of the bunch – Conan – could not replicate the success of Leno or Letterman. And the reason has little to do with the host and more to do with the fact that late night television is no longer a viable commodity.
*This has pretty much already happened to Kimmel.
People have a tendency to believe that 20th century models of entertainment have an almost divine right to carry over into today. The last half of the last century was a golden age of television, movie and music production, aided by technology and a new found freedom to speak out loud ideas that up until that time remained in silence. Mass communication was new, and mass entertainment is even newer, so with it came a tidal wave of talent that for the first time could affect millions of people all at once. One of the most prolific of 20th century entertainers was Johnny Carson. Carson was in the homes of every American every night, sending the nation off to bed with celebrities and small talk. When Carson retired, Jay Leno and David Letterman tried to split a market that was now competing with cable. Neither became Carson, because becoming Carson for anybody at that time was an impossible task. The fact that Leno and Letterman were both able to enjoy success was a small miracle. It spoke to both of their respective talents, yes, but also was a product of a nation that still went to bed at the same time, still devoted themselves to network television, and still required that someone enter their homes every night and lull them to bed with the same small talk that Carson invented.
Times have changed. With Twitter, Facebook, Snap Chat, Words With Friends, Face Time or whatever other means of communication, society can now pick and choose who enters their homes every night. DVR has allowed us the option of pushing back prime time into late night, while Netflix, Hulu and Amazon turn every small screen into a big one with the quickness of a click. Spotify and Pandora have erased the need for television as the white noise in the background if we see fit. The need for late shows has all but vanished. Nobody chose Carson, rather, he seized the opportunity of being needed. What Colbert, Kimmel or Fallon would need to be, in this media age of infinite option, is perfect. Neither host is that.
As David Letterman signs off tonight, there is a very real chance that the art of hosting late night goes with him. The last stalwart of 20th century entertainment, his exit is not so much a changing of the guard as it is a symbol of the end of an reign of kings into a budding democracy of media. And as with all new democracies, this one will be shaky from the start. It will take getting used to. At points we will feel as if the old model – as limited in options as it was – is more preferable than the current. And we may very well be right when thinking that. The dictatorship of network television may have been cold, but it sure did provide comfort. We will see if any of the new hosts can provide that daily comfort in a way that Conan could not. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Things are much, much different than they were even ten years ago, and there’s no going back now.