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.
Now, NBC is again putting Leno out to pasture, this time in favor of Jimmy Fallon, who will replace him in the host’s chair after the Winter Olympics next year. Assuming NBC doesn’t reverse itself again, Fallon will face the same dilemma Leno did in 1992: making a mainstream talk show appeal to diverse audiences. It’s easy to criticize Leno’s performance — and many have — but Fallon will have his work cut out for him.