Johnny Carson Returns: Antenna TV to Air Full ‘Tonight Show’ Episodes

Johnny Carson
Courtesy Carson Entertainment Group

Just when it seemed the late-night landscape couldn’t get more competitive, here comes Johnny Carson.

Tribune Media’s Antenna TV, the multicast digital channel devoted to vintage television shows, will run full-length episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” nightly at 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT starting Jan. 1.

Antenna TV has struck a multi-year deal with Carson Entertainment Group to license hundreds of hours of the NBC late-night institution. Antenna will run episodes that aired from 1972 through the end of Carson’s 30-year reign in in 1992. Because NBC owns the rights to “The Tonight Show” moniker, Antenna TV’s episodes will be billed simply as “Johnny Carson.”

“This is not a clip show. This is full episodes of Johnny Carson, the man that everyone in late-night agrees was the greatest host of all time, airing in real time as he did back in the day,” Sean Compton, Tribune’s president of strategic programming and acquisitions, told Variety. “Tuning in to ‘The Tonight Show’ is like taking a walk down Main Street in Disneyland. The minute you step in there, you feel good and you know it’s a place you want to stay. We cannot wait to bring this show to fans who remember Carson and to a new generation of viewers who have never had the chance to see Johnny in his prime.”

Antenna’s showcase will mark the first time Carson-era “Tonight Show” episodes have aired on a nightly basis since the host signed off in May 1992. Carson stayed out of the spotlight after his retirement until his death at age 79 on Jan. 23, 2005.

“The Tonight Show” ran in a 90-minute format from the start of Carson’s run in 1962 until 1980, when it was trimmed to an hour. Antenna will air hourlong episodes on weeknights and 90-minute installments on Saturday and Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.

The scheduling of episodes will be carefully curated to run as themed weeks or months, as well as episodes that coincide with notable anniversaries, holidays and other milestones. Those could include everything from a week’s worth of “Tonight Show” debuts by future comedy superstars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Jim Carrey and Tim Allen to a month of Christmas episodes in December. Antenna’s “Tonight Show” run will begin with the New Year’s Day episode from 1982 featuring Eddie Murphy and “MASH” star McLean Stevenson.

With all the hubbub over changes in late-night TV during the past two years, Compton had the idea to revive Carson’s “Tonight Show” in a big way. Carson Entertainment Group, headed by Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew, was immediately receptive.

“I think there’s a demographic out there that is really going to eat this up,” Sotzing told Variety. “The show will now be able to be seen by so many people who haven’t seen it before.”

The deal involved nearly six months of negotiations with Hollywood’s talent guilds and the American Federation of Musicians. The talks were complicated because there’s not much precedent for residual fees for full-length reruns of a vintage variety show re-airing on a digital broadcast channel. A few weeks ago the deal almost fell apart over cost issues that seemed insurmountable, but Compton and his team kept hammering away until compromises were reached.

Tribune execs are determined to keep each episode as intact as possible — which means negotiating new agreements for the show’s many musical performances on an episode-by-episode basis, in most cases.

The full-length segs will re-introduce viewers to the show that cemented the template for the late-night talk-variety format, from the monologue to goofy banter with sidekicks to showcasing promising comedians. Carson also invented a host of characters over the years, including Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern and Aunt Blabby, as well the leading the “Mighty Carson Art Players” sketches. Carson, Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen were also famous for doing in-program commericals. Tribune’s sales department is looking to set up creative sponsorship deals piggybacking on those now-priceless integrations, Compton said.

Carson Entertainment has marketed home video releases of full-length “Tonight Show” episodes in the past. But that’s not the same as being able to tune in every night as the show originally aired.

Sadly, the first 10 years of Carson’s “Tonight Show” are lost to history, with only a handful of episodes that survive. When the “Tonight Show” made its historic move from New York to Burbank in 1972, Carson realized that NBC had no archive of his older episodes. From then on, Carson Entertainment invested in state-of-the-art archival technology to preserve his legacy — a focus that continues today.

The 1972-1992 episodes have been digitized and meticulously transcribed and catalogued. The master tapes are buried 600 feet below the earth in a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kan. There are multiple digital copies housed in safe locations as well, according to Sotzing.

“We continue to spend money to protect the library and make sure it’s a working library,” he said. With digital technology, “it’s amazing how we have gone from 50-pound two-inch videotapes to having hundreds of shows on a single (computer) drive.”

Carson was pleasantly surprised after his retirement that there was a home video market for older “Tonight Show” episodes. Sotzing said he has no doubt his uncle would be happy that his life’s work still had value to a modern TV network.

Launched in 2011, Antenna TV is carried on the multicast channels of broadcast TV stations around the country, including Tribune-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other top markets. All told, Antenna at present is available in 102 TV markets reaching 78% of the nation’s television households. Antenna does not have broad SVOD rights to the “Tonight Show” episodes but will be able to make them available on a limited basis for authenticated streaming through MVPD partners.

Antenna’s schedule lineup at present is anchored by such evergreens as “All in the Family,” “Bewitched,” “Green Acres,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Partridge Family” and “Leave It to Beaver.” The investment in Carson’s “Tonight Show” library is a sign that Tribune is ready to raise the profile of Antenna TV. The channel is profitable even with a modest, older-skewing audience. The hope is that a combination of nostalgia and interest in the legend of Carson will drive broader sampling of the channel.

The “Tonight Show” project has been a labor of love for Compton, who has screened hundreds of episodes to prepare for assembling the themed packages. The plan is for Antenna to be nimble in programming episodes on short notice to respond to headlines and current events.

“With Johnny you just have everything,” Compton enthused. “On the night of (the 2016) Indy 500, we’ll have an episode of Johnny talking about about the race. On Christmas Eve, we’ll have an episode with Jimmy Stewart telling stories about the making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Our possibilities are endless.”

(Pictured: Doc Severinsen, Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon)

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  1. Dan Mackey says:

    How can I get this programming in Oklahoma

  2. CDR Jeff Wiersma says:

    How can I watch this in holland Michigan???
    Hulu??? Hulu plus????
    Help I love Johnny Carson and wish I could buy a DVDs set of all his shows!!

    • Tkoustenis says:

      > Loved loved loved Johnny Carson. Thank you for showing his reruns on Antenna TV !!!!!!!!

      ~~~Tina Koustenis


  3. T Koustenis says:

    Johnny Carson was and is still my ALL TIME favorite. I remember when VCRs came out and I ran to the store to buy one just so I could record & watch all Johnny Carson shows. (He was on late and I had to work). So on Saturdays I watched them all for that week. The new late night shows can’t and will never be able to compare to Johnny Carson. A true legend and an outstanding entertainer. Love and miss you Johnny‼️

  4. The new hosts on the replacement shows don’t even match Johnny Leo or even Letterman. Stephen Cobert is a joke. I don’t waste my time watching him. I turn on Johnny Carson reruns.

  5. Jackson says:

    Over 3 months later, still no musical acts have been shown. Guess they were wrong when they said it would included musical acts.

  6. FRED MARCUS says:


  7. wayne says:

    Been watching since it started Jan. 1. Most (80-90%) are shows from the 80s, the period when Johnny was getting increasingly bored with the whole thing.

    Also, 3 months of shows, and I’ve seen 1 Karnac skit (which was uncharacteristically bland). No Aunt Blabby, no Art Fern, no Floyd R. Turbo. Other skits are being cut out, probably to fit in more commercials (I’ve seen a couple of shows were Carson refers to a Mighty Carson Arts Players skit later in the show, and no skit is shown). Other segments are being deliberately cut for commercial time (Pete Barbutti routine a couple of nights ago was terminated for commercial after about 45 seconds.)

    They are obviously culling the better show/skits out so they can continue to market those on the retail market.

    But its still Johnny. Better than the other crap on late night tv

  8. ali wehr says:

    Love Johnny Carson! I’m so grateful to AntennaTV for putting back on TV the most wonderful entertainment show in history.

  9. Donna says:

    I hate it!!! Loved it when it was relevant. Very depressing for me now. And WAY too long!!! Ugh

  10. Ronnie Dee says:

    What Happen To Your show In Pahrump Nv. 44 It Is Now Grit Tv We What Annt_tv back Pleases

  11. Jim Wheeler says:

    Is there a way for people to watch Johnny Carson episodes if they do not have cable?

  12. Kym Chaffin says:

    For about a week it seemed eerie, watching these. But after a week I remembered why he was so great–the monologues are dated (they were topical at the time) but he’s BY FAR the best interviewer and that makes a huge difference. He’s smooooothhe. He’s also funny and he was great guests. I’m totally hooked! I watch the johnny carson tonight show every night and sometimes in the morning (DVR). Thanks for running these.


  14. marvs2 says:

    I haven’t watched “late night TV” since Johnny retired. He couldn’t be replaced! Looks like I’m going to live again!

  15. Deb Sloan says:

    Im sorry, not at all happy about the new old programming. Loved & love Johnny Carson but also loved the 30 min programs where we got the variety of all the other old shows. This is too much for too long. We wont be watching antenna tv channel 114 anylonger, too bad they didn’t pick another time slot but of course thats just our opinions. Thx

  16. I’ve been watching the Johnny Carson shows. I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed Johnny, Ed, Doc, and all the guys. Carson was the best, and he probably always will be. Very good memories!!

  17. Jonathan Ponthier says:

    The Johnny Carson shows should have the original air date at the bottom of the screen during the entire show.


  18. Jocelyn Hampton says:

    CORRECTED: How wonderful and how sad for those that try to hold a candle to his grace, style and unbelievable timing.
    I will be tuning in for sure. Thank you for bringing this to public!!!

  19. Jocelyn Hampton says:

    How wonderful and how say for those that try to hold a candle to grace, style and unbelievable timing.
    I will be tuning in for sure. Thank you for bringing this to public!!!

  20. doug morris says:

    I watched it too! great that Antenna TV is showing Johnny Carson. brings back wonderful memories for me.

  21. RB says:

    Just watched the first full length run tonight. It was great seeing Johnny again! Thank you Antenna TV for making it happen!

  22. Greg Vogt says:

    Say goodnight colbert, Fallon, cause Heeeeerrrs Johnny

  23. Nicole says:

    Antenna TV available on Comcast in ATL! FINALLY Comcast comes through with something good!

  24. Fisherman695 says:

    Does anyone know if AT&T will get Antenna TV Johnny Carlson show reruns

  25. Marti Twomey says:

    Just when I thought I had nothing to look forward to!!!

  26. Mary Daley says:

    Wish this would air on cable. You would have awesome ratings!

  27. Cathy Laney says:

    I’m so excited…. I love Johnny , only wish if gotten to meet him in person. He was and still is the King of late night…can’t wait to watch again. Kudos to whoever figured out we wanted this to happen. Come on January 1 you can’t get here quick enough.

  28. Cathy Laney says:

    I’m so excited…. I love Johnny and he was a big part of my young adult life. Can’t wait to watch again. Kudos to whoever figured out we wanted this to happen. Cone on January 1

  29. It will be great to see the master at work! The late night shows of today aren’t really very funny or cleaver.

    The sophistication of Carson’s wit will shine like a diamond in the late night time slot!

    I hope a whole new generation of viewers will grow to appreciate the magic of Johnny Carson.

  30. john harvey says:

    The real Johnny experience was the show,, sometimes it was great,, sometimes it was just our household babysitter, something to watch when we called it a day,, Johnny was our guiding light who led us into the next day,, a true family member of us all. I never bought those clip compilations cause that wasnt the Carson experience,, it is the show the whole show , as it ran .. stimulating or not..

  31. JRD says:

    I think this speaks volumes about how lame late night talk television has become. With the retirement of Letterman it’s left to a crop of generic unfunny guys who are terrible interviewers and have crummy guests. The comedy itself is now crude and in many cases mean spirited.
    Johnny Carson will be a welcome treat. I miss smart and funny conversation with real celebrities!

  32. ScottD says:

    I am so happy. No, not happy, ecstatic! I can’t wait until January 1st. I hate clip shows, they don’t bring back the nostalgia and wonderful memories. I’ve been wanting someone to broadcast full episodes of Johnny Carson for years. Thank you Antenna TV, thank you.

  33. Siegfried Strauch says:

    Great article. I can’t wait to see the Johnny Carson shows again! I notice Joan Rivers’ name was missing from the list of guest host episodes. I wonder if they won’t air those because of Johnny’s tantrum over her getting her own talk show…which she certainly had the right to do. And her guest host spots on his show were the best. Such a shame he held that grudge till the end. They were once the best of friends. Hopefully cousin won’t continue such childishness.

  34. Tommy Newsome says:

    Great news. I just purchased an Tivo Roamio OTA dvr. Gonna fill it with The Best of Carson!

  35. Joe Kienlen says:

    TERIFFIC!! What a great way to introduce him to younger viewers who don’t remember him! Antenna TV should be applauded for this!
    (let’s just hope that they don’t crunch the closing credits lie they do on some of their other shows)

  36. Leon Paczynski says:

    Any possibility of seeing these episodes in Europe? Negotiations with Netflix or Amazon?

  37. Michael says:

    That’s awesome!!!! Definitely watching, I just hope it doesn’t interfere with Three’s Company at 12:00.

  38. James Parks says:

    “600 feet below the earth in a salt mine in Hutchinson, Kan. ” How Carson-esque. In mayonnaise jars no doubt.

  39. Ray says:

    Genius, absolutely a genius idea.

  40. Clay Jones says:

    If you have an Antenna TV affiliate in your market, you’ll be able to watch. As they say, check local listings.

  41. mona solski says:

    Will this be available on Directv?

  42. Kim says:

    Is this going to be available in the Wichita, KS market?

  43. Alan Coles says:

    If I am a Comcast customer, will this be available on Comcast?

  44. Tom says:

    Great now we’ll have something good to watch late night

  45. I Love Music says:

    My primary interest will be the 90 minutes shows with musical guests and those programs not already released to home video/DVD. My biggest concern is they will not take the time or money to license the programs with music acts. I hope those programs are the #1 priority because those are what I long to see the most. I also worry the shows with guests hosts will be ignored. If the guest host shows are not going to be aired, then please offer a method for viewers to purchase to see them separately instead of allowing them to rot 600 feet underground in Kansas. For heaven’s sake, I have money and I have an interest. I won’t be alive forever so make money on these while you can!

    • p Hobson says:

      Apr15,2016, iwant to thank antenna TV CH 33-2dfw for this programming Johnny Carson after reading this article I’m not a up at this hour regularly but love it Johnny can’t be compared 2
      If u show 1962/72 please advise 3/4 months prior u n major companies do it all the time, WHY no music guest? Sony owns most?

  46. Video Vision says:

    This is great news! And perhaps it could even establish a precedent for bringing back episodes of another series that would attract legions of viewers: THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW. As big a hurdle as it was to clear the rights to Johnny’s show, Dean’s would be that much tougher (given the huge amount of music contained in each episode), but if the powers that be would devote the same time, care and attention to it, they just might be able to pull it off.

    • Christie says:

      Yes, the Dean Martin Show would be great to have on Antenna TV. I am VERY MUCH looking forward to watching these Johnny Carson shows. I was a teen in the 70’s and would sneak a peek at his late night show on school nights … they were funny, clever, and insightful without putting everything out there in terms of sex, scum, etc. You really had to listen to catch the jokes, double entendre comments, looks, etc. Very witty and entertaining show!!!

  47. mcgwynne says:

    Great news! I stopped watching late night TV when Leno left. Johnny started on the Tonight Show October 1, 1962. My 20th birthday. I was with him almost every night including the final show. He was like a member of the family who would visit every night at exactly the same time he would stay for an hour or an hour and a half and then leave and he would always bring wonderful people with him. it was like uncle Johnny uncle Ed and uncle DOC would show up make some music and some fun and include us. I was an actor living in Hollywood in those days and whenever I had to do a show from NBC in Burbank I would always arrange to have my wardrobe fitting around 4 o’clock in the afternoon so I would have a studio drive-on pass, get the wardrobe done, have a little snack at the commissary and go backstage to watch the Tonight Show!!!
    Somehow now it’s just not the same but thanks to Tribune Johnny’s coming back on New Year’s Day. What a great way to start 2016. Thanks tribune. Thanks Sean!!!

  48. Marion Brown says:

    What channel will this be on in the New York area?

  49. Darlene Grau says:

    SOOOO exited to see Johnny Carson back on TV! I grew up heating my parents laughing at him in the 60’s and would sneak out of my room and beg my mom to let me stay up and watch. Even when I was in elementary school I recognized how GREAT he was! In the 70’s when I was old enough to stay up I watched every night. I own the DVD’s, but it’s not the same… Thanks for providing great tv shows on Antenna TV! Can’t wait until New Year’s Day 2016!

  50. If they placed this during the same time slot as Fallon, I know which one I would watch.

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