Late Night TV Musical Chairs - Letterman Displays Empathy for Leno
David Letterman displays empathy for his rival Jay Leno as Jay hands over his Tonight Show on NBC TV time slot to Conan O Brien
The long time rivalry, if not a feud, between David Letterman and Jay Leno began on May 22, 1992, when Johnny Carson, the host of the the Tonight Show retired and was replaced by current host Jay Leno amid controversy. NBC TV decided to grant the Tonight Show TV slot to Jay Leno instead of David Letterman, even though Letterman was Johnny Carson's choice. Letterman, having had his heart set on the earlier time slot, left NBC and joined CBS. Late Show with David Letterman, airing in the same slot, competed head to head against Leno's The Tonight Show for the next 15 years and Johnny Carson never spoke with Jay Leno or NBC bigwigs again. A dramatized version of the power struggle for the Tonight show was made into a TV movie called The Late Shift. Jay Leno never paid tribute to Johnny Carson until after his death in 2005, because he always felt the Johnny had been disingenuous, reportedly stating to Leno many times before his retirement that Leno was the "Natural" fit for the show and that he would be" wholeheartedly recommending" him - It wasn't an unreasonable expectation by Leno, he had been standing in for Carson during his vacations for years. Jay Leno never personally recovered from that letdown, but got great success as the new host on the Tonight Show and achieved ratings that even Johnny Carson would be proud of.
During the next fifteen years, Jay Leno usually had higher ratings for his TV show than Letterman's "Late Night",curiously prompting NBC to buy billboards in New York's Times Square proclaiming that Leno was no.1 in late night. In response, CBS bought billboards featuring David Letterman as "no.3 in Late night", clearly poking fun at NBC's arrogance.
During his long run, Jay leno always held on tightly to his ratings lead, which is why he has never used guest hosts; only reruns were broadcast during Leno's absence. You have to remember that being a guest host on Johnny Carson's show was how Leno was able to land his own show, so he had no intention of facilitating the rise of another host, perhaps to replace him one day.
Although Leno's Tonight Show always had the ratings lead, fans of Letterman's "Late Night" were more popular with advertisers because of its superior demographic, thus both shows performed swimmingly when it came to sweeps week, the week that the advertising prices for the time slots are calculated.
Although the Leno/Letterman feud has mellowed into more of a competitive spirit in the past few years it is a surprise to see David Letterman displaying some empathy for Jay Leno – given the way NBC is showing the Tonight Show host the door, who was replaced by Conan O'Brien on June 1, 2009.
"Unless I'm misunderstanding something about the deal, I don't know why, after the job Jay Leno has done for the NBC execs and all the money he has raised for them, why they would relinquish him and the show in this way" David Letterman was reported as telling Rolling Stone in a recent cover story.
"I guess they thought it was a less messy way to handle it than what happened to me at NBC, back in the day. I don't know."
Asked what he feels for the 58-year-old Leno – when Jay landed the plum Tonight job as successor to Johnny Carson in 1993, Letterman set up shop at CBS – Dave answers, "I guess empathy is the right word. It's hard to know what he felt about it. I have to believe he was not happy about it."
In the new generation's version of Late NIght musical Chairs, Conan O'Brien, 45, will get the Tonight job, while Jimmy Fallon, 33, will take over Late Night. Jay Leno gets his own new show "The Jay Leno Show" that comes on at the more primetime hour of 10PM on NBC, but that time slot is always subject to more scrutiny from the NBC Execs, so the show may not last long at that time.
David Letterman has extended an invitation to Leno on his first available night free. Letterman says that Leno he would be a great guest to have , adding that they would have a lot to talk about, probably sniping at NBC execs and burying the hatchet. Although its too late for Leno and Carson.
As for his own future, "The way I feel now, I would like to go beyond 2010, not much beyond, but you know, enough to go beyond. You always like to be able to excuse yourself on your own terms," says Letterman, who now has a baby boy to take care of, a live in girlfriend, 3 apartments in New York City, a summer home in The Hampton's and more money than God.