The Impact Of Host Changes On Popular TV Shows
Can a popular television show survive - or even thrive - when its host is replaced with somebody new?
Frequently TV shows, particularly TV talk shows, become so indistinguishable from their hosts that it is difficult for us to imagine the show even existing without that person (or persons) in charge. Case in point: For years, people have referred to The Tonight Show and Late Night as simply "Leno" and "Conan," respectively, essentially equating the shows with their hosts. And yet, 2009 has completely changed the game for both those TV shows, with Conan O'Brien leaving Late Night to take over The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Fallon replacing Conan. Will such massive changes sound the death knell for these popular late night TV talk shows? History demonstrates that there is little reason to think so.
Some TV shows are institutions unto themselves and keep on going no matter who is serving as host or moderator. The Tonight Show has been on the air since 1954, and during its first years had such distinguished hosts as Steve Allen and Jack Paar at the helm. In his 30-year reign from 1962 to 1992, Johnny Carson solidified The Tonight Show's status as a late night fixture. When Jay Leno took over and maintained high ratings for the show, he proved that the public is willing to stick with a show despite a host change - providing, of course, that the public likes the new host. Leno had plenty of practice, filling in as guest host many times during the Carson years.
During the time period that a popular TV host holds sway, the public frequently think of host and show as interchangeable. Some viewers may even insist that they won't watch a favorite television show when a new host takes over, but people usually end up adjusting pretty quickly. For years, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee was a morning talk show institution. Regis was the show's anchor, and Kathie Lee was his bantering partner. Some people loved her, some people loved to hate her, but it was hard to imagine the show being the same without her. Yet, years after Kathie Lee Gifford's departure, it feels perfectly natural to call the show Regis & Kelly, and morning TV watchers now accustomed to waking up with Kelly Ripa on the screen can hardly remember a time when she wasn't co-hosting the show.
Some TV Shows Thrive With New Hosts
The View has been like musical chairs for hosts, making several personnel changes over the last few years. One advantage that a multi-host TV talk show like The View has, though, is that the viewers never have to acclimate to a completely new slate of hosts at one time. As with Regis Philbin, mentioned above, The View has always had "anchor" hosts and moderators who have been with the show a long time, even as new hosts are brought in. In a couple of cases (i.e. Rosie O'Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg), The View's new hosts have been established names, resulting in an actual ratings improvement for the show.
The Daily Show is a fine example of a TV show that not only survived a host change, but really took off and came into its own after its original host, Craig Kilborn, left. Replacement host Jon Stewart didn't turn The Daily Show into an instant success, but with a lot of hard work and by making an effort to make the Comedy Central show more than just a silly fake news show, Stewart helped The Daily Show earn respect and accolades from all quarters. Oddly enough, the second show that Kilborn left, The Late Late Show, also experienced a small surge in prestige with an Emmy nomination and an upswing in ratings after Craig Ferguson took over. The Late Late Show and The Daily Show are both TV programs that fans frequently refer to by their hosts' names.
TV Show Names and Longevity
There are many TV talk shows that have not been able to survive a change of host, and these are usually TV shows that have not sufficiently established themselves as a separate entity from the host. If your show is called Late Night with Conan O'Brien, then you can pretty easily drop off the old host's name and call the program Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. But if your TV show is called The Ricki Lake Show or Sally Jessy Raphael, then without the host, there is no show. And history has shown that daytime talk shows and judge shows named after their "stars" rarely bring in replacement hosts - if the show is doing poorly or the host wants to retire, the show is just canceled. The producers of these shows might want to take a lesson from a program like the generically-titled People's Court, which has had several judges over the years and continued to thrive. Viewers know the show by its "brand name," so it isn't as big of a deal when a new judge takes the bench.
However, to a certain degree, it's all semantics. After all, many supposedly "new" daytime talk shows with new hosts are basically just copying generic daytime TV formats already in existence. Is there, after all, really much difference - as far as guests, show topics, show location, and format are concerned - between The Jerry Springer Show and The Steve Wilkos Show (which is hosted by Springer's former security chief)? Just because the show has a different name doesn't really mean it's all that different. And you can even have the opposite situation with an "institution" show like The Tonight Show - the brand may still be the same, but you can bet that The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien is going to have a very different feel from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
When the Host IS the Show
Some TV shows genuinely have no reason to exist without their particular host. The Martha Stewart Show and Rachael Ray, both filmed in New York City, only exist because those women are stars in their particular fields. Theoretically, if Rachael Ray got tired of doing her TV show, she could turn it over to another popular cooking show personality (perhaps somebody from the Food Network) and the show could just be re-titled. This type of changeover seldom happens, though. Interestingly, The Late Show with David Letterman has a title that would lend itself well to a host change, but CBS actually created the show expressly for him, meaning that there is not yet a precedent for The Late Show existing without Letterman. When the popular host finally decides to retire, it will be interesting to see if The Late Show just closes up shop or if it is instead passed on to another up-and-comer who wants to try his or her hand at hosting what - with just its one host - has already become a late-night TV institution.