For ABC late night pretty much meant, and still means Nightline. Nightline started in 1980 after the Iran Hostage Crisis, and pretty much gained a footing from there as a news based talk show. It was and still is a far cry from the comedic shows that air on CBS, and NBC at the same time of night.
ABC is no stranger to comedic late night talk shows though, and had challenged NBCs Tonight Show as far back as the 60’s with their last attempt being the Dick Cavett Show which last aired in 1975. In 1997 ABC bought the rights to Comedy Central’s Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and began airing the show immediately following Nightline in an attempt to challenge CBS, and NBCs shows in both the 10:35 (CT) and 11:35 (CT) slots. Essentially the 11:05 (CT) air time was designed to dig into the last half hour of the Tonight/Late Show, and first half hour of Late Night/The Late Late Show, or basically attempting to take on all four shows. Although the concept was sound, the show never caught on against NBC’s, and CBS’s entrants. Part of the reason being was that the show was a little too politically heavy, and Maher’s humor a bit too dry and even insulting. One prevailing opinion in later seasons was that Maher seemed more interested in pushing his own political and philosophical opinions than actually entertaining his audience. In 2002 ABC cancelled Politically Incorrect due to poor ratings, and to controversial statements made by Maher. In many ways ABC’s issues with Politically Incorrect, are similar to what CBS is going through with The Late Show under Stephen Colbert. Although Colbert legitimately seems interested in entertaining his audience many feel the show is politically too heavy.
In January of 2003 a new face would appear in ABC’s late night spot. Jimmy Kimmel Live! would take over for Politically Incorrect following ABC’s coverage of the Super Bowl in 2003. Kimmel, by that time was a veteran host of other TV shows, but had yet to hit the truly mainstream. Inheriting Politically Incorrect’s damaged time slot Kimmel, had an uphill battle on getting viewers, and moving past the unfortunate legacy of his predecessor. The shows style was also totally different from Politically Incorrect’s mimicking the slightly more familiar late night formats of the shows he competed against on NBC, and CBS. Kimmel quickly adopted skits, crazy characters, and recurring gags to his show endearing himself to audiences and immediately digging into Leno’s and Letterman’s ratings. Kimmel also became known for his show ending phrase “My apologies to Matt Damon we ran out of time!” a reference to one of his first shows, but reminiscent to another Jimmy, Jimmy Durante’s “Good Night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!”.
2009 and the shape of things to come at NBC
When Leno and O’Brien renewed their contracts with NBC in 2004 it was rumored that Leno disclosed his intentions to retire in 2009. At this point O’Brien added a clause to his contract that upon Leno’s retirement in 2009, O’Brien would take over The Tonight Show reigns.
On May 29, 2009 Leno would do his last show as host of The Tonight Show and the following Monday June 1, O’Brien officially took over. For O’Brien though, things began to go sideways pretty quickly as The Tonight Show began to quickly tank in the ratings. Even under Leno, and with a significant loss of viewers to Jimmy Kimmel, The Tonight Show still held its own at number 1, and many speculated as to why The Tonight Show took such a dip after O’Brien took over. One of the main theories and one that was somewhat proven was that Leno took most of his writers and top staff with him after leaving The Tonight Show since NBC wanted to keep him on air and from going to another network. At the same time it was speculated that many of O’Brien writers and staff chose to stay in New York to work for new Late Night host Jimmy Fallon. Whatever the reasons though the show did dive in the ratings, and Leno returned to NBC 3 months later in the 9 PM (CT) time slot with the Jay Leno Show, which was nothing more that a pre-local news version of The Tonight Show, and an attempt to shore up The Tonight Show’s plummeting ratings, while keeping Leno out of circulation.
But even with Leno and O’Brien both on the air, NBC and both host were still suffering, especially since NBC had to give up its 9 PM (CT) time slot 5 days a week, a time slot usually set aside for its high drama series such as those of the Law & Order franchise. By early January of 2010 NBC decided to move the Jay Leno Show to follow local news, cutting it down to a half hour, and starting The Tonight Show at 11:05 (CT). For O’Brien the writing was on that wall, and by the end of January he had reached a deal with NBC to step down from The Tonight Show, giving it back to Leno. Although paid handsomely for his troubles O’Brien and many of his fans and supporters believe NBC and Leno set him up to fail. O’Brien would quickly find success elsewhere bringing his humor to TBS, were he has done extremely well in ratings. Perhaps Conan and its success is proof that NBC did in fact set him up to fail.
In the meantime as Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien fought it out for The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was brought in to takeover Late Night in March of 2009. Fallon was a former SNL cast member, known for his impressions, and cracking up during SNL skits such as in the famous “Cow Bell”, and “Barry Gibb Talk Show” bits. He left SNL in 2004 on extremely good terms, and with long term SNL producer Lorn Michaels wanting him to stay on. Fallon would make his rounds in Hollywood for the next few years, but although he expanded his group of friends he never caught on in movies, but he made sure to stay close to his SNL roots. So when it became clear that Late Night would need a host after Conan O’Briens departure, Lorn Michaels quickly suggested Jimmy Fallon. At first NBC was unsure of Fallon as a choice, despite his reputation for being personable, and recent experiences hosting awards shows such as the VMAs. In May of 2008, NBC reluctantly agreed to Michaels nomination of Fallon, and formally announced his new role on Late Night.
Although it was originally planned that Fallon would take over Late Night, at the same time Conan O’Brien took over the Tonight Show a change in circumstances forced Fallon to take over three months earlier than anticipated. Despite this, and thanks to Michaels, Fallon was well prepared by his first show and went on to achieve great viewership, ratings, and a huge fan base. Luckily, for Fallon as crap hit the fan at the beginning of 2010 with The Tonight Show, he went unscathed.
As for Leno he would return as The Tonight Show’s host as of March 1, 2010. In May of 2013 Leno would announced that he would now fully retire as the shows host in 2014, and hand the show over to Jimmy Fallon. Once again NBC was unsure of Fallon in the role, but based on his success with Late Night, and his huge following NBC decided he was a good bet. Leno’s last show would air before the Winter Olympics, with Fallon premiering as The Tonight Show’s new host only 11 days later.