Johnny Carson brought NBC’s “The Tonight Show” from New York to Southern California in 1972, a nod to Hollywood’s status as the capital of the entertainment industry and the gravitational center of the pop-culture universe. Although the network’s headquarters was in New York, Los Angeles had long since eclipsed the Big Apple when it came to television production. As Carson told The Times that year, “The guests you can get in Hollywood you can’t get anywhere else.”
In the four decades since then, many film and television producers have fled to cheaper locales, and new forms of entertainment have lured away many of the youthful viewers that Hollywood used to attract. So it’s not shocking to learn that NBC may move “Tonight” back to New York when current host Jay Leno is replaced by his heir apparent, “Saturday Night Live” alum Jimmy Fallon. The choice of locations seems to be driven by Fallon’s preferences, not business imperatives. But it’s still hard for us Angelenos not to take it personally.
Aside from the occasional turbulence — as when NBC replaced Leno with Conan O’Brien in 2009 only to give the job back to Leno seven months later — “Tonight’s” lead in the late-night TV ratings has been all-but unshakable. It remains an iconic program in a rich segment of the market; according to analysts at Kantar Media, late-night TV generates $5.6 billion in revenue annually. But its viewership has shrunk, along with the advertising dollars. Kantar estimated that the show’s revenue last year was more than 40% lower than it was in 2007. Last year “Tonight” laid off about 20 of its staff, or roughly 10%, and Leno’s pay was cut by a similar share.
Network executives reportedly see switching to Fallon as a way to boost the show’s appeal among the younger viewers that advertisers covet. Of course, that’s the same reasoning that led to O’Brien’s elevation, and that didn’t work out as planned. One key difference, though, is that they’re evidently ready to let Fallon move the show back to New York. O’Brien wanted to do that too, but they insisted he move west. That was less than four years ago.
Unlike the typical runaway production, “Tonight” won’t save money by moving; in fact, it may actually spend more to shoot in New York than in Southern California. But Fallon’s current show is produced in the city, and he reportedly wants to stay there for personal and professional reasons. Still, it’s telling that the network believes the show can thrive far from beautiful downtown Burbank and the celebrities who still call the area home. As Milken Institute economist Kevin Klowden put it, “L.A. is not so essential, even to NBC’s management.”
With the fragmentation and globalization of entertainment, it’s hard to think of any city as the industry’s capital any longer. Besides, we’ll still have “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Conan.” All the same, if “Tonight” leaves, it’ll be yet another sign that Hollywood’s gravitational force isn’t what it used to be.