From 1962 until his retirement in 1992, Johnny Carson ruled late night with wit, charm, and a feathered turban. He wasn’t the first host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, nor the last, but he’s considered by just about everyone to be the best. And now, more than two decades after his final sign-off and ten years after his death at age 79, Carson is returning to late night television.
Antenna TV, a nostalgia-themed digital broadcast network owned by Tribune Broadcasting and available in 78% of the country, will begin airing Carson reruns in January, weeknights at 11 p.m. (ET)/8 p.m. (PT) and Saturdays and Sundays at 10 p.m. (ET)/7 p.m. (PT). Because NBC controls the rights to The Tonight Show name, Antenna’s broadcasts will be called simply Johnny Carson. (Jimmy Fallon is undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief.)
And good news for you cord-cutting Carson fans: Antenna TV is free. The network is available over-the-air (as a digital sub-channel of a broadcast television station) with some affiliates carried by local cable providers. (More info on how to get the channel is here.)
Best of all, Antenna will be running complete episodes, in some cases broadcast in their entirety for the first time since their original airdate.
“This is not a clip show. This is full episodes of Johnny Carson,” Sean Compton, Tribune’s president of strategic programming and acquisitions, told Variety.
Sadly, only 33 shows from Carson’s first ten years as emcee survive today. Although the episodes broadcast during that decade were recorded on videotape, those tapes were erased and reused as a cost saving measure (common practice in the early days of videotape). Only when the show moved from 30 Rock in New York to NBC Studios in Burbank in 1972 were all daily broadcasts retained.
According to Variety, Tribune is dedicated to keeping each episode “as intact as possible,” which is great news. The extent to which the episodes are edited will largely be determined by music rights clearances, which need to be negotiated on a show-by-show basis – a complicated and expensive proposition for a relatively low-profile network like Antenna. The prohibitive cost of music licensing has wrecked havoc with the afterlife of shows like WKRP in Cincinnati and The Wonder Years and has likely played a role in why music-heavy variety shows are so infrequently rerun.
Tonight was a 90-minute show until 1980, so any pre-1980 episode Antenna airs on a weeknight would have to be edited to fit the shorter time slot. The weekend broadcasts will be ninety minutes, however, so those shows should be largely intact. I was too young to watch Carson in the ’70s, so the prospect of seeing those episodes un-cut is exhilarating. Topical Nixon jokes! Wide collars! Talk show guests smoking on TV! The mind boggles.
This is not the first time Johnny Carson has made a posthumous return to TV. In July of 2013, Turner Classic Movies launched Carson on TCM, a series of 60-minute compilations of Johnny’s conversations with classic film icons, hosted by one of his successors in the hosting chair at Tonight, Conan O’Brien. The package of fifty interviews TCM licensed from Carson Entertainment Group will continue to air on the network “occasionally” as interstitial programming (sans Conan’s intros), a TCM spokesperson told me today.
Johnny also appeared in reruns during his original run as Tonight Show host.
In 1982, Columbia Television syndicated a daily, thirty-minute clip show called Carson’s Comedy Classics that included sketches and comedy bits from the previous decade, as well as a handful of surviving material from the 1962-72 lost episodes. The show also included bridging narration from Ed McMahon, Carson’s beloved sidekick for his entire run. Carson’s Comedy Classics has continued to air sporadically ever since, appearing as recently as 2009 on Reelz Channel.
Complete Carson episodes have also been marketed to collectors on DVD for years, and digital downloads of a handful of shows are now available (including one from 1968). But Antenna TV’s re-launch of the show will provide – by far – Johnny’s greatest visibility since he left the air in 1992. In addition to the scheduled nightly broadcasts, Antenna will also air reruns at 2 a.m. (ET)/11 p.m. (PT) weeknights and 1:30 a.m. (ET)/10:30 p.m. (PT) on Saturdays and Sundays. That adds up to a stunning 16-hour programming commitment each week, or roughly ten percent of Antenna TV’s broadcast schedule.
As much as I’ve enjoyed the excerpted interviews on TCM, to fully appreciate the brilliance of Carson and the charm of his breezy, off-the cuff interactions with guests and staff, you have to see the shows unfold in real time. That’s part of why this initiative is so important, and potentially groundbreaking. If it works – and Tribune’s financial commitment and pledge to be “nimble in programming episodes on short notice to respond to headlines and current events” has me feeling optimistic – Carson’s legacy may live on for a whole new generation of fans.
And if the Carson reruns succeed, what other treats from the variety or talk show genres might we see on the growing number of venues catering to fans of classic content? The answer is locked in a mayonnaise jar under Funk and Wagnalls’ porch, and on Antenna TV next year.