Late night television options used to consist of a movie, something on UHF and "The Tonight Show."
The air space after the local news was ruled with an iron fist by one Johnny Carson. ABC made a run at Johnny when it debuted "Nightline" in 1980 with Ted Koppel (a show born from the Iran hostage crisis), but Johnny was the unquestioned No. 1 when it came to TV around the witching hour.
Johnny was 36 when he took over "Tonight" in 1962. For comparison sake, Jimmy Fallon is 37 years old.
But Johnny got better and more dominant with age, just like a strong whiskey. He moved easily into his 50s and 60s, his hair getting grayer but his appeal not. His viewers got gray with him, and maybe that was part of it, too.
Joey Bishop made a run at Johnny in the late-1960s on ABC but even Rat Packer Bishop wasn't much of a threat. Then Johnny moved the show from New York to California in the early-1970s and his already impressive guest list got even better, as the big-time movie stars were now even more accessible. Some would drive themselves to the NBC studios in Burbank to chat with Carson, then drive home.
David Letterman joined the fray in 1982 and finally there became a viable option to Carson's old school blend of straight man, cheesy sketches and quirky guests like "the potato chip lady."
Today, the late night TV pie is sliced so thin, into so many pieces, that it's not a slam dunk anymore that "Tonight" (hosted by 62-year-old Jay Leno for almost 20 years now) will pull in big viewership nightly.
The vulnerability of "Tonight" was underlined recently when news broke that the show, which has been on the air in various forms for about 60 years, was making staff cuts.
Layoffs on the "Tonight Show"? Believe it.
Leno is only signed to host "Tonight" thru September 2013
About 20 people lost their jobs, and Leno's $26 million annual salary took a 10-percent cut. According to the Detroit News article, it was only the second time in the show's 58-year history that layoffs happened.
"Tonight" draws about 3.7 million viewers nightly, but before the sloppy, ham-handed switch to Conan O'Brien and then back to Leno a couple years back, those numbers were over 5 million viewers.
The late night audience is a younger breed, and they like Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" and they like Jimmy Kimmel, whose show will be shifted 30 minutes earlier, to the 11:35 p.m. slot to compete directly with Leno and Letterman.
Here's more bottom lining for you: cable networks gobble up nearly 84 percent of the $5.6 billion late night TV market, according to research firm Kantar Media. The cause and effect is that the over-the-air networks are losing market share---over 5 percent last year alone.
NBC has prided itself on being a leader with television's wake up and go-to-sleep viewers, with "The Today Show" and "Tonight" ruling the roost for decades. And NBC was a pioneer of sorts when it introduced programs like "The Midnight Special" on Saturday nights and "Tomorrow" with Tom Snyder weeknights at 1:00 a.m., after Carson.
Well, this isn't 1966 anymore. Or 1996, for that matter.
Leno's contract expires in September 2013. NBC may have a decision to make at that point.