For more than 40 years, a studio at the corner of Olive and Alameda avenues in Burbank has been churning out a show that keeps viewers up late. But with NBC's "Tonight Show" poised to migrate back to New York, Southern California is in danger of losing not just jobs but also cultural clout.
News sunk in Thursday that NBC is hatching a plan to replace "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon next year and move the show back to New York, the city it fled in the early 1970s, not long before New York was mired in a bankruptcy crisis. Reaction has poured in along predictable lines: New Yorkers are gloating, Angelenos despairing. The mayor of Burbank is even organizing an official plea to persuade NBC to keep the show where it is.
Long-time late-night producer Robert Morton, who worked with David Letterman on "Late Night" and "The Late Show," and now lives mainly in Los Angeles, sees the move to New York as a smart one. "As far as I am concerned it's the best place to do late-night TV," he said.
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"You walk into 30 Rock, you walk into the Ed Sullivan Theater," continued Morton. "I don't care what you're doing, if you're a plumber, it's a special place to work. Guests go in there, they feel part of New York, part of showbiz history. Here, you're going to factories."
Over the last few years, those factories have faced enormous economic pressures. Studios have cut jobs and paychecks as more films and TV shows have fled to New York, Vancouver and overseas, where tax credits and other benefits are more generous. Meanwhile, media fragmentation has meant lower ratings for everyone.
"Tonight" has been slammed as hard as any show — even though it's been the undisputed No. 1 in late night for longer than a decade. Advertising for the program has fallen by more than 40% since 2007, according to Kantar Media, an industry consulting firm. In 2007, "The Tonight Show" took in $255.9 million. Last year, that figure was $146.1 million. Late last year, NBC trimmed budgets for the show, resulting in a near-unprecedented round of layoffs. "Tonight" now employs about 150 staff members, many of whom would likely lose their jobs if the show moves to New York.
For Fallon to succeed in replacing Leno, he'll need to win over the heartland. Leno's largest audience is from the Midwest and Rocky Mountain region. There, his show airs at 10:35 p.m., not 11:35 p.m. — and because of the earlier time, relatively more viewers are available to watch comedy shows after the local news than on the coasts.
When Conan O'Brien briefly took over for Leno a few years ago, he struggled to adjust his then-East Coast-centric show to what is sometimes referred to as the "flyover" audience. That may be less of an issue for Fallon, though, as he brings a teenage enthusiasm to his show rather than the too-smart-for-the-room approach that O'Brien often favors.
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The move back to New York could signal an effort by NBC to revitalize the "Tonight Show" brand, still the premiere franchise in late-night but now seen as stagnant and too safe.
"From '54 to '72 'The Tonight Show' had the flavor and the feel of New York City," said Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media in New York City. "New York was at one point something that executives once shied away from, but with 'Seinfeld,' 'Louie,' 'Sex and the City,' New York is thought of in a different way."
In his early days in New York, Carson was edgier, but following the move to Burbank, he settled into his role as Hollywood's elder statesman, according to Gary Edgerton, dean of the college of communication at Butler University. "'The Tonight Show' always had a formula, but it became congealed almost in the last 20 years. Of course, that's what Jay Leno has always been criticized for, that he's so middle of the road, and so vanilla in his approach to things."
An excellent mimic who sings, plays the guitar and frequently performs in sketches with guests, Fallon is a throwback to such versatile personalities as Steve Allen and Sid Caesar, who defined the early years of TV in New York City, says Edgerton. "He's a jack of all trades, he can do a variety of different things."
But to those left behind, the proposed move — which, it should be noted, NBC has yet to officially confirm — still hurts. Burbank Mayor Dave Golonski is drafting a letter to NBC executives asking them to reconsider the plans to move "Tonight" back to New York.
"'The Tonight Show' has been an iconic part of Burbank as well as the entire region," Golonski said in a phone interview. "So many people have a connection to Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. They've grown up with the evolution of Burbank and 'The Tonight Show. It's a show that really represented the city of Burbank and the West Coast."
Other politicians were just as upset about the prospect of the region losing a prestige show.
"I would urge the network to respect this tremendous history" said Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who previously represented Burbank in the state Assembly. "The Tonight Show belongs on the West Coast, and I for one am going to fight hard to make sure the show and its jobs and economic activity stay right here."
Times staff writer Greg Braxton contributed to this report.
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