×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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)

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • Peter Weber and Mike Johnson

    'The Bachelor's' Mike Johnson on Diversity and New Leading Man Peter Weber

    ABC named its newest star of “The Bachelor” this week, officially making Peter Weber the leading man for Season 24 of the long-running dating show. Social media backlash ensued following the announcement due to ABC’s selection lacking diversity, yet again. Since the dating franchise began in 2002, there has been only one “Bachelorette” of color [...]

  • ABC Studios Logo

    ABC Studios Head of Alternative Fernando Hernandez Exits

    ABC Studios’ head of alternative Fernando Hernandez has departed from his post at the Disney-owned television studio, a source familiar with the situation told Variety. The Hollywood Reporter first reported the news. Hernandez’s exit follows an executive shuffling at the top in recent months that has included the departure of Amy Hartwick, ABC Studio’s head [...]

  • Rob Cowan, Greg Silverman'The Conjuring 2'

    Greg Silverman’s Stampede, School of Rock Team for Unscripted Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Former president of Warner Bros. Pictures Greg Silverman is partnering with School of Rock through his content creation company Stampede. The collaboration with the music school will create exclusive content, starting with the development of an unscripted series.  School of Rock operates a network of performance-based education franchises that offer students of all ages guidance [...]

  • TV Roundup: Erica Durance Reprises 'Smallville'

    TV News Roundup: Erica Durance Reprises 'Smallville' Role in 'Arrowverse' Crossover

    In today’s TV news roundup, Erica Durance reprises her “Smallville” role in the CW’s annual “Arrowverse” crossover, and Showtime shares with Variety an exclusive sneak peek at the return of “The Circus.” FIRST LOOKS “2020 is the most important election of our lifetime,” Alex Wagner says in a new trailer for the fourth season of [...]

  • Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel WME

    Endeavor Targets Sept. 27 for Stock Debut, IPO Video Tells Company's Origin Story

    After years of preparation, Endeavor is set to make its formal Wall Street debut on Sept. 27, when its stock will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Endeavor has targeted Sept. 26 for the final pricing of its shares. The stock will trade publicly the following day. Earlier this week, Endeavor said its [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content