Jay Leno's reign over late night television ended on Friday. The host of "The Tonight Show" gave the keys to the 11:35 pm franchise on NBC to comedian Conan O'Brien, who begins his run as host tomorrow night.
After 17 years as host of "The Tonight Show," where he dominated the ratings for most of that time, Mr. Leno won't be disappearing from America's TV screens. He'll return in the fall with a talk show that will air Monday through Friday at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Asked what he thought the impact of switching to a time slot 90 minutes earlier would have on his core audience, Mr. Leno once quipped that his viewers were getting older and so needed to get to bed earlier.
Last year, NBC offered to move Mr. Leno to the 10 p.m. slot to keep him in the company fold. He will have stiffer competition at that time, but even so, his show will be cheaper to produce than a scripted drama. For NBC, that is the bottom line.
There isn't the same level of sentiment for the passing of the torch from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien as there was when Johnny Carson retired to clear a path for his successor. Mr. Leno isn't retiring. Still, his departure from 11:35 p.m. represents the passing of an era in late-night television. He may have been corny much of the time, but Jay Leno embodies Americana more than any other comic of his generation. He's the comic equivalent of comfort food.
Mr. Leno will have to figure out how to put America in the mood to laugh when we're used to crime shows and hospital dramas at 10 p.m. But if anyone can find a way to make viewers switch from "CSI" to an interview with Paris Hilton, he can.