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The fuss over late-night hosts

- April 10th, 2014

Network late-night hosts represent stability in an era of disposable programming, which is why we in the media make such a fuss over them – especially when one of their number retires, as David Letterman has announced he will do next year.

There’s no other way to explain how figures like Letterman, Jay Leno and their younger successors continue to generate so many headlines.

It’s certainly not because they’re big draws anymore: Fewer and fewer viewers are watching shows such as Late Night and The Tonight Show when they air, while the smartest among these hosts– namely Jimmy Fallon — approaches his program as if its main purpose is to generate viral videos.

(You know we are living in a strange world when the next Letterman, Stephen Colbert, is touted as a personality who will appeal to a younger audience. He’s 49 years old!!)

Long gone are the days when viewers would stay up until all hours to watch celebrity interviews and half-baked skits. Instead, we simply PVR them for the next morning or catch the good bits on YouTube at our leisure.

Letterman has had a late-night slot since 1982, first on NBC and then CBS. Johnny Carson’s run on The Tonight Show lasted from 1962 to 1992. There are so few figures in our increasingly fragmented TV universe who have that kind of staying power.

Or look at the format of the typical late-night program: monologue, desk bit, celebrity interview, maybe a comedy act, then a musical number to end the evening. Nothing has changed in decades.

You can say that late night became fossilized long ago, but even if we don’t watch these programs regularly, we get comfort from knowing they are on the air. Late night represents tradition, a powerful idea at a time when there seem to be few certainties.

Any mass medium is based on repetition. Take Leno, for example: Rumour had it he specified in his contract he would have no substitute hosts. He wanted viewers to know they could see him in the same place at the same time every night.

Call that formulaic if you like, but it was Leno’s way of making sure he became a part of the daily routine for millions. And it worked.

In an ever-changing world, late night is a habit. It has outlived many a TV craze. While prime-time programs get cancelled after only a few episodes, late-night hosts grow into icons over the decades.

The obvious exception is Conan O’Brien: When he was booted from The Tonight Show, it was shocking because viewers thought he would be on NBC for years to come.

Now for my two cents. Do I believe Stephen Colbert is the right choice to replace Letterman? I’m not sure the Late Show is the right platform for him. It will depend whether TV watchers want to spend time every night with Stephen Colbert, as opposed to “Stephen Colbert.”

But if we’re still watching Colbert in 2045, I can say for sure it won’t be on TV. He will appear in our living rooms by virtue of hologram, or perhaps we’ll laugh at his jokes as he is beamed via a signal that goes directly into our brains.

Categories: News

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