When Jay Leno took over as host of “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson in 1992, it was an opportunity for a generational shift on the fabled NBC program. Carson was a legend, but the charms of threadbare routines like “Carnac the Magnificent” were increasingly lost on younger viewers. Stepping into Carson’s shoes, Leno’s challenge was to connect with those audiences without scaring off anyone’s grandmother.
It was a tough challenge, and Leno, an Andover native, did his best to thread the needle. He freshened up the show, and always won strong ratings. But the younger viewers coveted by networks and advertisers were also being courted by competitor David Letterman — or, more recently, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O’Brien. NBC’s attempt to replace Leno with O’Brien in 2009 faltered, but the social media outcry on O’Brien’s behalf exposed just how weak Leno’s connection with younger viewers was.