Why There Can Never Be Another Carson - Even Johnny

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 14, 1992 | Go to article overview

Why There Can Never Be Another Carson - Even Johnny


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In a surprise announcement today, Johnny Carson, the late-night talk show host due to retire May 22, says he has changed his mind and will sign on with NBC for another 5-10 years.

JUST kidding. Or as Carson sidekick Ed McMahon might aver: "You are incorrect, sir."

Like the post-Carson TV world that is rewriting the rule books to attract more viewers, this has been a postmodern media ploy to hook you into reading further. That means drawing your attention to the artifice of the medium, teasing old assumptions about what's going to happen as you proceed. With "thrill cams," live out-of-studio visits, and on-air telephone calls, 1990s late-night television is full of eye-grabbing gimmicks.

The phrase "there will never be another Johnny Carson" is as much a statement about changing TV styles and audience expectations as it is about the broad appeal of a uniquely talented showman. With technology soon able to give us hundreds of video options in our homes, America is not likely to embrace a single TV celebrity in the same way ever again.

"The weakening of mass culture continues," says Paul Jerome Croce, a professor of history from Stetson University in Deland, Fla. He points to the increase in the number of TV channels and to telephone numbers that allow people to tap into subcultures from Christian evangelicals to rock music. Mr. Croce says it is now possible for a person to live his entire life within one narrowly focused cultural milieu.

"From magazines to theme parks to movies, whole industries are popping up to divert us away from a single, unified culture," he says.

When Carson first took over "The Tonight Show" in 1962, there were only three channels to choose from - four or five in some markets. Today several cities have upwards of 100, and some experts say 150 will soon be commonplace. Such diversity creates pressure on producers to cook up new ways of attracting and holding viewers.

"It is now second nature to zap a show with remote control when it starts to bore us," notes Brian Stonehill, author of a forthcoming book on visual literacy entitled, "What to Watch For." To keep viewers from doing that, producers try to stay a jump ahead by simulating the channel-changing themselves on many shows. …

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