Yes, the stories about NBC moving forward in a late-night transition from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon are interesting — because there seems to be no end to the rumors in various forms — but a more troubling late-night development will happen much sooner. When Jon Stewart takes an eight-week break from The Daily Show this summer to write and direct a movie, it won’t just be torture for fans who will miss his nightly take on politics and the news of the day, but it will also be a litmus test for Comedy Central on the durability of its late-night brand.
In the summer, there’s usually a full month of Daily Show repeats, which is annoying but tolerable, and there’s all that warm weather and vacation to distract you. But if you add Stewart’s eight-week movie break, then you get a real test of viewer loyalty. Correspondent John Oliver, a very funny man and a key player on the show, will take over as host. But the hard truth is that Stewart is the show, period. It doesn’t function nearly as well without him.
ANALYSIS: Why NBC Should Be Planning Jay Leno’s Exit
I’m pretty sure Comedy Central understands this all too well and will use the Stewart absence as a very painful science experiment on what its franchise will look like without the face of that franchise mugging for his adoring audience. I’m also pretty sure they won’t like the lab results.
Yes, The Daily Show existed before Stewart, but it didn’t become one of the most talked-about and influential series in late-night until he took over and made it his own. Stewart’s singular personality — intelligent, hilarious and very fast on both counts — skewered purveyor’s of "real" news (CNN, Fox — all the cable players plus the network news) and made politicians take notice of his power. You don’t need his bio — you just need to nod in agreement that he’s the show as it’s currently constructed. Remove Stewart from the anchor chair, and you change that dynamic, no matter how good Oliver is and no matter how tolerable viewers will find the notion of eight weeks versus "forever."
Even if fans know Stewart will return, a nightly show can make eight weeks feel like forever, especially if it doesn’t feel like the show they love. And at some point, it won’t. That’s when Comedy Central execs will look at the ratings and fret.
Of course, summer viewership is generally lower. And Daily Show fans might have some knowledge that both Stewart — and the man he helped become his own brand and star, Stephen Colbert — extended their contracts not long ago (Colbert’s reportedly through 2014 and Stewart’s into 2015). So there’s some security there.
STORY: NBCU Debates Timing of Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ Debut
But good executives think long term. And it could be that eight weeks without Stewart will not only hurt the Daily Show ratings, it might also impact The Colbert Report as well. If viewers don’t like the feel or tone of the Oliver version, then adding the month of repeats makes that three very long months at Comedy Central.
If the channel’s execs hadn’t seriously considered an exit strategy — or a transition to a Stewart-less future — no doubt their summer plans have been completely changed. This little experiment might be mighty revealing.
As for the rest of us, eight weeks is a very long time to go without Stewart. The man is an icon in late-night and if something particularly juicy happens, viewers will be dying for his spin on it. Then again, if Dick Cheney stays away from guns and politicians don’t do something super asinine, the absence will be merely annoying rather than dire.
So while we watch the Leno-to-Fallon "transition" play out as an unwitting circus over at NBC, it’s worth remembering that the loss of Leno or the anointing of Fallon falls short of the importance of Jon Stewart’s summer vacation.