1953: “The Steve Allen Show” live variety program bows on NBC’s flagship New York station WNBT (now WNBC), running
1954: Allen’s success against the Gotham competition convinces NBC prexy Pat Weaver to take him national as The Tonight Show. Weaver roils the competition with his crack that Tonight will go up against “senile celluloid,” aka old movies.
1957: Allen hands the show over to Jack Paar. Urbane and witty, Paar famously walks off the show over a joke being censored, returning a month later with the line, “As I was saying before I was interrupted …”
1962: Paar quits. NBC relies on guest hosts for six months until Johnny Carson is available.
The Joey Bishop Show
1967: ABC challenges Carson with “The Joey Bishop Show,” which is canceled after two seasons. It is one
of many challenges Carson will beat back during his 30-year tenure.
The Tonight Show
1969: “Tonight” sets a ratings record with the marriage of singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki.
1972: In part to improve the booking of Hollywood stars, Carson moves the program from New York to Burbank.
1980: Show is cut from 90 minutes to an hour.
1986: Joan Rivers, who had become the “permanent guest host” three years earlier, abruptly leaves to host a new show on the startup Fox network. The practice of guest hosts becomes a thing
of the past.
1989: Arsenio Hall’s latenight show premieres in syndication. Its success with younger viewers fuels concern
at NBC about Carson’s
aging audience profile.
1991: Facing pressure from NBC, Carson unexpectedly announces his retirement at the NBC a affiliates meeting.
After plenty of backstage drama, the network eventually chooses Jay Leno over Carson’s other potential successor, “Late Night’s” David Letterman, to succeed him.
1992: Carson bids his audience “a very heartfelt goodnight,”
and Leno takes over. Letterman moves to
CBS and premieres directly opposite Leno with “The Late Show” the following year. Conan O’Brien, a former writer for “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night
Live,” replaces Letterman.
1995: Buoyed in part by Hugh Grant’s appearance after his arrest with a prostitute
(“What the hell were
you thinking?” Leno asks) as well as NBC’s strong primetime ratings, Leno surpasses Letterman, becoming latenight’s ratings champ.
2004: Worrying that O’Brien will leave if he’s not named Leno’s replacement, NBC
prods Leno to agree to
hand over “The Tonight
Show” in 2009,
2009: Fearing the prospect of Leno leaving for another
network, NBC offers
him a Monday-Friday 10 p.m. slot for “The Jay Leno Show. Ratings for Leno”
and O’Brien’s “Tonight”
2010: NBC tries to return Leno to latenight in a half-hour show and shift “Tonight” to
midnight. O’Brien walks, leaving with a $45 million buyout. He soon lands a new show at TBS.
The Tonight Show
2013: In a near-replay of 2004, NBC seeks to orchestrate a switch from Leno to O’Brien’s “Late Night” replacement, Jimmy Fallon.
2013: After weeks of rumors, the network confirms plans for Leno’s exit in February 2014. Maybe.