I remember the first time I watched the Tonight Show. It was 1978 and Johnny was at the top of his game. His monologue was tight, he has me in giggling with Carnac the Magnificent and his guest Don Rickles brought me to the floor. This is the type of thing NBC really wants. A host that's edgy, fresh and able to build a cult following over time.
Although Conan's ratings haven't been very good so far for numerous reasons, the audience cross section he appeals to is the same as the one that Carson had early in his show. As Carson's audience matured, so did his comedy and after 30 years on the air Johnny know it was time for a hard reset. To achieve this, it was his desire to hand off the show to David Letterman but NBC had other ideas and gave the show to Jay Leno instead. When NBC made the announcement in 1991, the New York Times reported:
[...] NBC executives expressed concern this year about the age of the audience that is watching Mr. Carson and emphasized that Mr. Leno has been able to attract younger viewers.In the same article, Jay Leno expressed clearly that he has no intention of making significant changes:
The age of the viewers is a concern because a late-night syndicated show starring the comedian Arsenio Hall has made significant inroads into the "Tonight" ratings, especially with younger viewers, though in the last year Mr. Hall's show has faded somewhat. Television advertisers most often favor younger viewers.
[Leno] said he expected the "Tonight" show to change very little when he takes over. "We may have a new set, new music, things like that," Mr. Leno said.So much for the hard reset. Along came 17 years of drab, predictable humor.
Now don't get me wrong. I like Leno as a person, but it's like he went on autopilot shortly after he took over the show. He used to be that edgy, fresh comedian with the great disposition but that, along with his passion for comedy, all seemed to disappear. Oswald Patton made similar comments on the matter recently as well:
This spring when Conan took over the show, the hard reset finally happened and as expected, the ratings took a hit. That's what happens when you start building a new audience, but the long term payoff is immense. NBC made the right decision to give the show to Conan.
After 17 years on hiatus the spirit of Johnny Carson has, for a season, come back to life. Let's hope NBC makes the right decision and doesn't vanquish it from their house.