Jay Leno may go down in history as the least appreciated host in the history of the "Tonight Show." He replaced the man many considered irreplaceable (Johnny Carson), and was selected for the job over his heir apparent, David Letterman.
Against that backdrop, many in the TV business thought Leno was destined to fail, particularly after Letterman moved to CBS. And sure enough, Leno struggled, ratings-wise, during the early years of his tenure. David Letterman's CBS show became a critical favorite, and he consistently attracted a larger audience. While there was no talk of replacing Leno (the show remained highly profitable and he earned far less than Carson), more than a few TV execs suggested that NBC had "blown it" by allowing Letterman to sign with CBS.
Popular legend has it that Leno's fortunes forever changed on an evening in 1995, when actor Hugh Grant was the featured guest. Grant had just been arrested during an encounter with a prostitute, and his appearance attracted a huge audience. Leno's opening query to Grant--"What the hell were you thinking"--became a TV classic, and viewers liked what they saw. From that moment on, Leno and the Tonight Show became dominant in late night, a position they retained for the next fourteen years.
In reality, Leno closed the gap with Letterman long before the Grant interview, but that moment provided the spark that largely ended the ratings battle. Since 1995, Letterman has remained mired in second place, and fell behind ABC's "Nightline" earlier this year. More impressively, Leno held on to the top spot despite declining ratings for NBC's prime time line-up, which delivered a smaller lead-in audience for the Tonight Show.
Despite generating enormous profits for the network--and its corporate parent, GE--Leno was under-valued by his employer. In 2005, NBC rewarded him by announcing that Conan O'Brien would take over the Tonight Show four years' hence. After early ratings woes in the 12:30 time slot, O'Brien found an audience as Letterman's NBC replacement, and there was concern that he might leave NBC.
But a funny thing happened on the path to succession. O'Brien's ratings slipped; on some nights, he finished behind Craig Ferguson, the latest host of the Late, Late Show on CBS. Suddenly, some of the suits at NBC began to have private doubts about Conan and The Tonight Show.
And there were signs that Jay Leno was weighing his options, too. Reports suggested that the departing host was talking with Fox and ABC, who were anxious to sign Leno and put him against O'Brien. If Conan was struggling against Craig Ferguson, the thinking went, then he could have real trouble against Leno, fronting a new show on a different network.
So, NBC came up with a compromise. O'Brien still got the Tonight Show, but Leno would up with a new gig, hosting a prime time talk show that will air from 10-11pm, five nights a week, beginning in the fall. It's a bold gamble for the fourth-place network, and many observers are predicting failure already. Then again, we heard similar predictions 17 years ago, when Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson.
ADDENDUM: While Leno is considered "less influential" than Letterman, he did invent a classic bit that speaks volumes about America and our education system. We refer, of course, to his "Jay Walking" segment, which became one of the show's most popular features.
Armed with with nothing more than a couple of photographs (say Chief Justice John Roberts and Britney Spears) Leno would ask passers-by to identify the individuals. Invariably, the pedestrians recognized the pop figure, but had no clue about the other person's identity. In that sense, "Jay Walking" was funnier--and scarier--than anything we ever saw on Letterman.