Jay Leno's Legacy and the Future of Late Night TV

Joe Goldman  |

Jay Leno’s legacy in the history of late night television is nothing short of incredible. Leno reigned supreme atop late night ratings for almost twenty years. While he never dominated the late night scene like Jimmy Carson did several decades ago, one can easily argue that Leno is the king of late night among this current generation of hosts.

Leno will conclude his career with 22 years of hosting under his belt, holding a strong ratings lead for a majority of them. He will be remembered as a relentless worker and perfectionist who always put the quality of his show before anything. For this reason, he amassed a loyal following who stuck with him for decades.

Of course, Leno’s career path was by no means smooth. There was a whole debacle in 2009 between Leno and heir-apparent Conan O’Brien, who wound up leaving NBC after Leno’s new show in primetime lagged in the ratings category, prompting NBC to move Leno back to his original late night spot on The Tonight Show. O’Brien, upset about losing the spot, decided to leave NBC with a settlement worth tens of millions.

O’Brien believes Leno deceitfully forced his way back into his old spot, but Leno adamantly denies such claims. He insists that he has simply followed the orders of his employer – if they want him on the air he will gladly continue to host. Now four years later, Leno is being pushed out of the business in favor of the younger, more energetic Jimmy Fallon. These several years of controversy cast a shadow over the tail end of Leno’s career, but certainly not over his career as a whole.

Even with a ratings decline in recent years, Leno is going out on top. He is likely the most beloved talk show host of his generation. He has ruled out a return to late night TV but will likely return to television at some point in some capacity. He will retire to focus on his family, charity work, and legendary collection of automobiles.

Leno’s Financial Impact

At one point, The Tonight Show led late night ratings for 11 years in a row. On average, Leno drew 5.7 million viewers per night, or 31 percent of the nation’s total audience during that particular time slot. He maintained a lead over Letterman and company for years.

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However, Leno’s ratings dipped in 2010 during his second stint with The Tonight Show. In 2010, Leno’s ratings were second to Letterman for the first time in 15 years. Ratings rose again in 2011 to 4 million views when Leno regained the lead over Letterman’s 3.5 million.

Although the specific finances for The Tonight Show have not been released, the show was hugely profitable, particularly prior to the Leno-O’Brien debacle in 2009. Lower ratings have cut into profitability, and some even believe that Leno’s show is no longer profitable for NBC, which is owned by Comcast ($CMCSA).

However, NBC did release the financial information for the briefly running Jay Leno Show, which likely has similar finances as The Tonight Show. Leno made $20 million per season with each airing cost between $350,000 and $400,000. Meanwhile, an hour-long TV drama typically costs $2-3 million per episode with around double the viewers.

With this said, Jay Leno’s show was a huge profit driver for NBC for many years and his absence will certainly be missed from a financial perspective.

Could One Man Dominate Late Night?

It’s certainly been done before. Johnny Carson, as the host of the Tonight Show, became known as The King of Late Night as his career and national popularity exploded, dominating the ratings of other hosts. David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and Craig Ferguson all cite Carson as influences.

Carson was also one of America’s most beloved celebrities in general. He hosted the Academy Awards five times, including four in a row from 1979-1982 and won countless awards including six Emmys.

Now as late night TV is in a transitional period from an older generation of hosts to a younger one, it doesn’t appear that any of the current late night hosts are capable of establishing this kind of late night monopoly. With a median viewer age of 55, Letterman will continue be the leader among older viewers. Meanwhile, Fallon is nicely positioned to capture a niche younger demographic of viewers, while O’Brien will likely be somewhere in between.

However, history tends to repeat itself. None of the current late night hosts have won over the hearts of Americans, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. A beloved Carson-like figure could one day lead the resurgence of late night TV, but it certainly isn’t one of the current hosts.

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