WASHINGTON, February 18, 2014 — It was a famous technicolor curtain, the one that Johnny Carson stood in front of as he hosted The Tonight Show year after hilarious year. To many, that colorful curtain symbolized the greatest show on late-night television. It was where pop culture legends gathered to talk about the events of the day.
That curtain symbolized Hollywood, and the California dream. That curtain said if you were clever enough and funny enough and could hold an audience then you, too, could have your own TV show someday. It is one of the reasons my friends and I in our pre-teen years sat on our bedroom floors with our boomboxes, recording performances of our own variety talk shows, and conducting interviews with each other at a desk – just like Johnny Carson did with his guests. Someday, we would be on TV. And we would move to California to make it happen.
In fact, everyone wanted to move to Hollywood – including Johnny Carson himself who began broadcasting The Tonight Show from Burbank in 1972. At the time, California was synonymous with glitz and glam and God-given great weather. It was THE place to be if you wanted to be on film.
My, how times have changed.
As The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon debuted last night to record ratings, that shuffling sound you heard was the final curtain closing on California’s entertainment industry.
With a love for New York in his heart, Jimmy Fallon and his team held vigorous negotiations with NBC, ultimately succeeding in keeping his show, the writers, his staff, the Roots band, and all of their families well, rooted, in the Big Apple. By stark contrast, in Burbank last night the spotlights were dark on a cold, empty soundstage on the Warner Brothers lot just outside of Hollywood.
It is a metaphor for what is happening in the Golden State.
Those of us who have seen firsthand the rapid decline of the State of California are not surprised that business is leaving California. After all, why would people stay? The state offers record high taxes, strangling regulations and a business climate so hostile it would make Alec Baldwin blush.
With the loss of The Tonight Show, the Golden State will suffer tangible economic losses. For starters, nearly 200 jobs were lost, as may be hundreds of additional jobs in and around Los Angeles which serviced the show. Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute’s California Center recently told NBC Los Angeles that other businesses in the chain of command will also suffer including suppliers, caterers, truckers and other support staff who were instrumental to the show’s production. Even more significant will be the impact on the tourism industry in California. While mum’s the word in Hollywood as of yesterday, my guess is that it will mean millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue and tax revenue to the State.
But the biggest shame in the loss of The Tonight Show is that California seemingly didn’t even put up a fight.
Upon finding out the show was moving, Burbank’s interim City Manager and the City’s Mayor both said they “sent a letter to NBC.” Sent a letter? Isn’t that the equivalent of asking a girl out by telegram these days? Yet in this fast-paced 24/7 TV cycle, there seemed to be not even a shred of shuttle diplomacy. Seemingly no hopping on the first flight to New York in an effort to win the show back – or better yet, having the foresight to stop New York from stealing the show in the first place. (After all, NBC was grooming Fallon for the position for years, Burbank should have seen it coming.) As for Governor Jerry Brown, who raised $1 million from his Hollywood friends at a private fundraiser just before Christmas, he has done relatively little to keep Hollywood in California. In fact, he’s done quite the opposite, with last year’s Proposition 30 in which Governor Brown attached a special tax on high-income earners.
Among others at fault: the California Film Commission, a State agency which doles out $100 million at taxpayers’ expense every year to the Hollywood elite. In my opinion, the agency should receive a failing grade of “F” for this latest loss and they ought to be subjected to a performance audit. Last but not least, a number of powerful studio heads and activists in Hollywood could have fought to keep the iconic show on the West Coast but they didn’t, either. All of this signals to me that the lights have truly gone down on the entertainment industry in California.
Sadly, California continues to lose relevance in a culture that is moving increasingly East Coast-centric between the media capital of the world (New York) and the political capital of the world (Washington, D.C.). Already, it’s difficult to get national news media to focus on breaking news on the West Coast, furthering a sort of “golden curtain” which shields California politicians from the scrutiny they would otherwise face if, say, they were an East Coast Governor such as Chris Christie. Unfortunately, the media spotlight just isn’t shining on California anymore. And that leads to further problems, which is a topic for a column another day.
To the talented Jimmy Fallon, I bid a well-deserved congratulations and good luck with the new show.
To California, I wish even better luck. We’re going to need it.