Late night then & now as Dave prepares to take off
NEW YORK (AP) — To deal with the present, we must understand the past.
As for predicting the future, fuhgeddaboutit. Not that media writers can resist another round of the Late Night Guessing Game, this time focusing on who will replace David Letterman when he steps down from CBS’ “Late Show” next year.
Stephen Colbert is already being hailed as the front-runner, a forecast that may or may not be more credible than political pundits anointing a presidential hopeful hours after the Iowa caucuses.
So before we indulge in any further host handicapping, let’s try for a little historical perspective by comparing today’s late night landscape against the world in which “Late Show” was born:
— THEN: Dave arrived in the 11:35 p.m. slot on Aug. 30, 1993, with a startup venture for CBS going up against NBC’s venerable “Tonight Show,” where Jay Leno had already reigned for 15 months.
Apart from those arch-rivals, broadcast TV had only four other players in late night comedy-talk: Letterman’s old haunt, “Late Night,” where Conan O’Brien would soon preside, followed by “Later With Bob Costas,” plus the syndicated “Arsenio Hall Show.” Also, debuting a week later, “The Chevy Chase Show” aired for just a month on Fox. And none of the hosts was named Jimmy.
— NOW: There are at least 11 such shows on broadcast or cable, with roughly 18 percent of them hosted by a Jimmy.
— THEN: Although three-fourths of TV homes had VCRs (enabling a “late night” show to be time-shifted to any hour, day or night), almost no one knew how to program them, or had even gotten around to setting the clock. And no one owned a digital video recorder — because it hadn’t been invented yet.
— NOW: Roughly half of TV homes (whether with or without VCRs) are equipped with DVRs, which further undermines the meaning of “late night”: Most of these shows are taped around dusk, then plugged into a late night slot where they’re available for a viewer to retrieve and watch whenever the mood strikes. With TV, “late night” is more a state of mind than a time of day.
— THEN: The term “Internet” would have registered barely a blip of recognition for most viewers, and, if by chance they had home Internet service, it only gave them crawling text through a dial-up connection. Web? Social media? YouTube? Streaming video? Google search? App? Whazzat?!
— NOW: Tweeting, second-screen interaction and viral video clips are necessary supplements to shore up the eroding audience a talk show can command solely on the TV platform.
— Speaking of which, THEN: The shiny new “Late Show” was scoring about 5.2 million viewers nightly, while “Tonight” averaged 4 million.
— NOW: Since Jimmy Fallon replaced Leno in February, “Tonight” has averaged about 5.2 million viewers (a huge initial boost from Leno’s final-year average of 3.5 million), while Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel have each averaged about 2.7 million.
Many changes, indeed. But even in a changing world, some things never change.
THEN: Among that handful of hosts, only one was a black man.
NOW: Among today’s crush of hosts, only one — that same guy, Arsenio Hall — is black.
THEN: No women were hosting.
NOW: One woman is a host— Chelsea Handler, though she has said she is ready to exit her E! program (and may or may not be a candidate for “Late Show”).
THEN: For months, media reporters just couldn’t stop churning out coverage of the Late Night War.
NOW: With Dave’s news of his retirement plans, we’re just getting started on another siege of stories.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier