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 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT