‘Here’s Johnny’ returning to television in January
By Nick Thomas
Johnny Carson fans are in for a New Year’s treat. On January 1st, the Antenna TV Network begins broadcasting reruns of the old “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
“The full shows have never been aired since Johnny walked off the air in 1992,” said Sean Compton, President of Strategic Programming and Acquisitions for the Tribune Company which operates 42 television stations including Antenna TV.
But getting Carson back on Late Night didn’t happen overnight.
“First, I had to convince Jeff Sotzing, president of Carson Entertainment Group that owns the shows, that our network was the right home for Johnny,” said Compton, who rebranded the show as simply “Johnny Carson” to avoid any conflict with the current “Tonight Show” on NBC.
Being a multicast network, Antenna TV programs are delivered to customers through both cable and traditional over-the-air broadcast, reaching some 88 percent of U.S. households – a strong selling point, according to Compton.
“My plan was also to run the show seven nights a week and broadcast the full shows with minor editing that most people won’t even notice,” explained Compton.
With the Carson company on-board, the next hurdle was rights issues with the entertainment guilds and unions.
“We had to work with the American Federation of Musicians, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, the Director’s Guild, the Screen Actors and the Writer’s Guilds to make sure everyone was treated fairly and got their royalties. They were actually good to work with, but it took a long time.”
That’s because the channel won’t just be running a handful of shows and repeating them over and over.
“We’ll be showing 366 unique shows in 2016 – it’s a leap year!” noted Compton. “I had to watch every show several times and work through all the rights issues for each one.”
That included musical guests who appear in most episodes. Each had to be handled individually.
“For instance, just the other day we licensed ‘The Beer Barrel Polka’ for an episode that contained the accordion-playing Polka lady,” said Compton, referring to Vlasta, the so-called Queen of the Polka, who was a popular guest on the show.
Some broadcasts will be seasonally timed or coordinated with topical current events.
“For example, there will be Christmas episodes in December and Valentine’s Day shows in February,” said Compton. “On March 4, we’ll have the Jim Valvano episode to coincide with the NCAA basketball championship. And for the Super Bowl, we’ll have the show with Art Donovan as guest. So the schedule is now set for the entire first year.”
Carson hosted the “Tonight Show” for 30 years, beginning in 1962. With the exception of a few clips, most programs from the first decade were not preserved, falling victim to the early frugal production practice of reusing videotapes. So only shows from the 1972-1992 years will be aired.
Among the hundreds of guests to appear during 2016, contemporary stars will include Robin Williams, Martin Short, Chevy Chase, Ellen Degeneres, and Eddie Murphy who will kick off the guest list on the first show (see http://antennatv.tv for schedule).
“We also have the classics such as Orson Welles, Jack Lemmon, Buddy Hackett, Elizabeth Taylor and many more,” said Compton, who describes Carson as a one-of-a-kind talk show host. “He could be funny without the shock value of today’s comedians. And he was one of the first comedians to poke fun at himself when a joke bombed.”
Compton also believes the New Year is an ideal time to begin airing the show.
“People are still in a nostalgic mood after Christmas when even 30-year-olds have been listening to music by Burl Ives and Bing Crosby,” he said. “So for a few minutes each day, they can suspend everything else that’s happening in real time by just looking in the rear-view mirror and enjoying some real classic television history.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers.