To Robert Wright, chairman and CEO of NBC Universal and vice chairman of parent company General Electric, “The Tonight Show” and its stars have been important in both a professional and a personal sense.
“`The Tonight Show,’ and the `Today’ show are the backbones of the network,” Mr. Wright said. “They’ve been around for 50-plus years. We’ve had a leadership position there all those years. That’s very important to us. And it is important to our affiliates. You open and close the day with people you are familiar with from the viewer standpoint. It’s just a big deal. It differentiates us from others.”
Since he joined NBC in 1986, Mr. Wright has developed personal relationships with the two hosts who have overseen “The Tonight Show” during his era. He was personally involved in the decision to hire Jay Leno to replace Johnny Carson. Although it meant NBC lost David Letterman, Mr. Wright said he has no regrets.
“There is no reason to [have regrets],” he said. “At the time I was desperate to try and have my cake and eat it too. I didn’t want to see Letterman leave. And I wanted to see Jay on the air. It was a very difficult situation. We were obviously unable to convince Letterman to stay, so he went on to do his thing. And we have done very, very well with Jay anchoring `The Tonight Show.”‘
Mr. Wright believes Mr. Leno is the right host for this era. “Jay connects to a very broad audience,” he said. “Like Johnny did, he’s able to find humor that appeals to people of different ages. We’re in the demographic business largely, and Jay delivers the demographic that we need. But he delivers even broader demographics.”
Mr. Wright has enjoyed an especially close relationship with Mr. Carson, whom many consider a near-recluse. “I don’t know that he is shy so much as he enjoys his time on the stage, but when he got off the stage, he was off the stage,” Mr. Wright said. “There aren’t very many entertainers who act like that. He’s different in that respect. But he’s certainly very personable, and he’s a good businessman.”
Mr. Carson also has an amazing facility for language, Mr. Wright said. “He has an extraordinary memory. A lot of comedians do. But I remember taking two trips with him, very special trips. One was to Russia just before the Soviet Union collapsed. In preparation, Johnny learned to speak Russian. He didn’t speak a word, and then six months later, we are going around Moscow and Johnny is talking to the guide as though they grew up in the same town. … Later I went to Tanzania, Africa, with him, and he learned to speak Swahili for that event. It was really something.”
These days, Mr. Carson is “thoroughly enjoying his retirement,” said Mr. Wright, with whom he still keeps in touch. Would he ever make a comeback? “No urge whatsoever,” Mr. Wright said. “That is all Jay’s territory now. It has been since the day [Mr. Carson] left the show.”
Mr. Wright sees “Tonight” as a franchise with a great history and a great future: “We are fortunate to have had such really outstanding people on `The Tonight Show,”‘ he said. “Steve Allen-what an incredible talent. And to have had Johnny for such a long period of time, defining humor for almost 30 years. And to have Jay able to follow him and add his own breadth and humor to that. And to do it for such a long period of time.
“I think that really defines who we are.”