For Jeffrey Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, “The Tonight Show” is a franchise that gets passed from one generation to the next, even as prime-time shows come and go. “Programs like `The Tonight Show’ are really part of the DNA not just of NBC, but of American culture,” Mr. Zucker said. “`The Tonight Show’ is an institution … in America at large.”
Mr. Zucker credited host Jay Leno, whom he signed earlier this year to a long-term deal through 2009-reportedly paying well over $20 million per year-for reinvigorating that franchise.
“Jay Leno has been the man at the helm for more than 10 years now,” said Mr. Zucker. “He has been the dominant player in late-night for almost all of that time. He is the undisputed leader in late-night television. And he’s done it in an era where there is far more competition than anyone who has ever had one of these jobs has faced. His stamina and broad appeal are unparalleled.”
Mr. Leno does it with hard work and by really caring about the show, Mr. Zucker said. “I believe it’s because he has a connection with the country as a whole and understands the entire midsection of the country in a way that few others do.”
Mr. Zucker said Mr. Leno richly deserves to be named TelevisionWeek’s Entertainer of the Year. “As `The Tonight Show’ celebrates [50 years on the air],” he said, “there is probably no more important figure in television entertainment than Jay Leno.” n
-Alex Ben Block