Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why do TV critics hate Jay Leno?

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 10:20 AM EDT, Mon March 25, 2013
Jay Leno -- here in May -- began hosting "The Tonight Show" in 1992. In 2009, he launched "The Jay Leno Show," but after seven months and poor ratings, he resumed his post on "The Tonight Show" in 2010. Jay Leno -- here in May -- began hosting "The Tonight Show" in 1992. In 2009, he launched "The Jay Leno Show," but after seven months and poor ratings, he resumed his post on "The Tonight Show" in 2010.
HIDE CAPTION
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
15 offbeat moments with Jay Leno
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: NBC's plan to replace Jay Leno sits well with critics
  • He says Leno's brand of comedy appeals to much of America
  • Critics are free to prefer Fallon, Kimmel, but replacing Leno is risky, he says

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- The news that NBC plans to dump Jay Leno -- again -- lifts the curtain on a dark corner of the media business.

Is it the fact that a network could be thickheaded enough to call the same play that blew up last time with the Conan O'Brien debacle? Nah. That's pretty obvious.

It's the way that television critics despise Leno, and how that colors the coverage of the late-night wars.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

When The New York Times' Bill Carter broke the story last week that NBC is ready to hand "The Tonight Show" to Jimmy Fallon in 2014, there was this line buried deep in the piece: "Another complicating factor has been Mr. Leno's success in the ratings."

Let's ponder that for a moment. Leno has the top-rated show at 11:30. NBC executives are nonetheless planning on booting him when his contract expires in the fall of 2014 and moving the show from Burbank, California, to New York.

Watch: Daily Caller editor created fake Facebook identity

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Imagine how that story line would play out if critics and reporters viewed Leno as sympathetically as they do, say, Fallon or Leno's ABC rival, Jimmy Kimmel.

What?? NBC is kicking Jay to the curb? The guy who has made the network hundreds of millions of dollars over the last two decades? The man who bounced back from his last firing and regained the late-night throne? What did he do to deserve this?

Instead the media reaction is a collective shrug of the shoulders: Yeah, makes sense. Time to wheel the old guy off the stage. Jay hasn't been funny since the Clinton administration and Fallon appeals to a younger crowd.

Late night war rages with Fallon, Leno
Jay Leno jokes about NBC

Watch: Do the critics want Jay Leno booted off the stage?

Time's James Poniewozik writes that "Jay 'It's just a business' Leno deserves no man's pity however this plays out." The Atlantic complains about his "groan-worthy jokes."

But here's the thing: Leno doesn't appeal to anyone but the viewers. At least those who live west of the Hudson River and east of the Santa Monica Mountains. He does broad comedy and hardly wields the kind of cutting-edge style favored by the bicoastal elites. But much of America likes him.

Does the 62-year-old comic skew old? Well, he's been beating Kimmel and David Letterman even in the coveted 18-to-49 demo.

Watch: Is the press now forgetting the horror of Newtown?

The critics made the same mistake last time around. Conan was so much funnier than Jay that giving him "Tonight" rather than risking his departure was a brilliant move by NBC. Except that O'Brien's quirky humor appealed to a narrow slice of the audience, the ratings plummeted, and a $32 million payout later, he was gone and Leno was back.

Leno has been punching back in his monologue, likening NBC suits to "snakes" and saying that the network's motto is "The Biggest Loser." The Times reports that a top executive ordered Leno to stop mocking the network, a ham-handed attempt at censorship that has obviously failed.

One strange twist is that some conservative pundits are carping that NBC is ousting Leno because of his jokes about President Obama (he ribs every president) and because, unlike the more openly liberal Letterman, he appeals to the heartland.

It's obviously more of a dollars-and-cents gamble that Fallon is the future. And indeed, Jimmy Fallon makes sense as Leno's eventual heir.

Watch: Is there a double standard in gay marriage coverage?

But in their haste, NBC execs risk blowing up the situation the way they did in hustling Ann Curry off the "Today" show, sparking a backlash against Matt Lauer and sending what had been the iconic morning show plunging into second place. Their prime-time lineup is in fifth place. Do they really need to immolate one of the few time periods where the network is No. 1? Fallon's a young guy. Johnny Carson was 66 when he stepped down. What's the rush?

The critics, of course, won't be happy until Leno is working the comedy clubs where he spends his vacations (and possibly competing against NBC from Fox). And they are entitled to their views of who has comedic chops and who is out of gas. But in this case, they're out of touch with the people who vote with their remote controls.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT