Website offers 3,300 hours of 'Tonight Show'

After years being preserved in a Kansas salt mine, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” archive is seeing the light of day — having been newly digitized for both commercial and public use.

Carson Entertainment Group — the steward of Carson’s professional legacy, presided over by the late host’s nephew and a former “Tonight” producer, Jeff Sotzing — contracted with Deluxe Archive Solutions to migrate the entire library to a digital format.

The effort means more than 3,300 hours featuring Carson hosting “The Tonight Show” will be available on a searchable basis for both licensing purposes and online access to consumers via johnnycarson.com. In addition, episodes are being condensed into half-hour versions — featuring the monologue, key guests and sketches — to be released as part of a DVD collection.

Sotzing wouldn’t discuss the cost of the digitization but said, “It’s going to take a while” to recoup the investment.

“It needed to be in a digital format, just for preservation,” he said, adding that the ability to access clips by searching for specific guests or sketches would enable people to “repurpose the material in as many ways as possible.”

One obvious beneficiary of the digital conversion will be filmmaker Peter Jones, who has contracted with Carson Entertainment for a major documentary about the former “Tonight Show” host, which is being produced under the aegis of KCET Los Angeles (Daily Variety, July 7).

Thanks to the digitization, Jones and his editors will be able to type in “Nebraska,” for example, and find all Carson’s references during the show to growing up in the heartland. Similarly, those sifting through the archive will be able to cross-reference material for such things as selected musical acts, Carson characters like Carnac the Magnificent or a comic’s first “Tonight” appearance.

“What made this particularly unique was the level of metadata attached to it,” said Gray Ainsworth, senior VP of operations for Deluxe Digital Media, noting that the layers of data “unlock, in a much higher way, the value of the content.”

Because the original episodes were saved on videotape — some of which had been recorded over by NBC — most material from the first of Carson’s three-decade “Tonight Show” stint has been lost.

Carson negotiated ownership of the program for the last 20 years of his run during a contentious contract renewal in 1972. The tapes were previously stored 650 feet underground in what was a Hutchinson, Kan., salt mine.

Carson seldom appeared publicly after his departure from “The Tonight Show” until his death in 2005, but his influence over subsequent generations of latenight hosts and comics remains significant.

“You’ve got to know when to get the hell off the stage, and the timing was right for me,” Carson told Esquire magazine in 2002, one of the rare interviews he gave after retiring. “The reason I really don’t go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself.”

Carson Entertainment is based in Fullerton, Calif., and has partnered with Respond2 Entertainment on the DVD releases.

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