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Open Letter To Jay Leno: Flip Them The Bird And Reinvent Late Night TV

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Dear Jay,

Suddenly the reigning king of late-night television is facing the likelihood of being dethroned. Although the great Johnny Carson was the one-and-only King, you have held the ratings-leadership position in late-night TV for two decades. And now you're looking at the demise of a storied career.

So, what are you going to do about it, Jay?

Are you going to crumble under mounting pressure to leave the stage of The Tonight Show, making room for the younger (some say, perkier) Jimmy Fallon? Are you going to eradicate that self-conscious black swoosh on your otherwise silver doo, eliminating any remaining suggestion of lurking youth?

The Hollywood Reporter recently addressed your expanding difficulties:

"Leno's Tonight still performs well for NBC, regularly besting his late-night rivals. But (Jimmy) Kimmel is competitive in the 18-to-49 demo. 'Kimmel has done extremely well,' a network veteran says. 'Jay wins overall, but on any given night, it's neck-and-neck in 18-to-49. I understand where they might have fear and also feel that they own the solution (in Fallon).'"

Jay, you know that TV networks live and breathe for the 18-to-49 demographic. That has been the ratings sweet spot since we were between 18 and 49. Advertisers pay more for younger viewing audiences. And in this ratings contest, you're now merely tying host competitors Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon. Kimmel and Fallon especially are nipping at your heels.

So, what are you going to do about it, Jay?

You could gracefully "retire," and give your full attention to an awesome car collection. You could fill your remaining days playing with your Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Your net worth of $250 million will make the shock of no future paychecks much more manageable, thus liberating you to joy-filled sunset years playing in your garage.

Or, you could turn to lesser TV shows on smaller cable networks, setting up camp in the back lots occupied by other well-known media personalities. I'm thinking, for example, of the comparatively marginal shows now being hosted by Joan Lunden, Jane Pauley and Florence Henderson. (No disrespect intended, but these seasoned media personalities have been all but banished from big-audience TV programming.) You'll lose a lot of audience reach and show prestige, but you'll still be in the game... kind of a has-been, though.

So, what are you going to do about it, Jay?

Your birthday of April 28, 1950, makes you a Social Security card-carrying member of the Boomer generation, a Leading-Edge Baby Boomer. You could reconsider your relevance to future television audiences from a generational perspective.

Boomers make up about 50 percent of the TV viewing audience, and we control about 50 percent of all consumer spending. Most of us may have moved on from 18-to-49, but we're still a potent force in the marketplace. Some advertisers and their agencies don't understand or embrace these media and economic facts and thus spend a measly 10 percent of all marketing dollars to target the 50+ demographic.

Those out-of-touch execs also harbor a belief that we Boomers, being older and allegedly set in our ways, are too brand loyal and thus cannot be convinced by advertising to switch brands. Why bother?

David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS, has a different take on Boomers and brands. "Boomers are less brand loyal than younger people," Poltrack insists, citing his voluminous consumer research. Plus, we Boomers are constantly experiencing life-stage changes, such as the emptying nest, making more funds available to spend on luxury products and brand experimentation. (That may help explain why you've purchased over 100 luxury automobiles for your collection.)

Alternatively, you could embrace your status as a Leading-Edge Boomer with one of the nation's most high-profile entertainment industry careers. You could act as a role model for millions of your Boomer peers who have also faced marginalization and career demotion, too often simply because of the accident of growing older. You could reinvent yourself as a latter-day host who focuses on guests, skits, monologues and parodies that will be of entertainment value to our generation.

You could join the fight to change aging, using your clout and visibility (and an enviable Rolodex) to help revolutionize antiquated mindsets about aging, entertainment and business. You can help us reinvent the 50+ life-stage while standing up to "the Man": those network and agency executives stuck in the 18-to-49 demo, troglodytes who see your silver hair as a freak-flag of irrelevance.

I see all kinds of possibilities if you're willing to abandon the traditional "big tent" approach to Tonight and start narrowing the focus on your 76-million fellow Boomers who have mucho discretionary dollars, propensity to spend, desire to remain engaged, and even schedule flexibility to stay up late and watch you and yours entertain.

So, what are you going to do about it, Jay?

I suggest that you extend your middle finger at ageist network programmers and advertisers (e.g. flip them the bird), reinvent late-night television, and become an entertainment industry thought-leader for a generation planning to watch, laugh and spend a lot more.

Peace,

Brent