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Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!

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Last week my colleague Daniel Blazek told the interesting story of how the Library came to acquire audio transcription discs of 1960s-era Tonight Show broadcasts via the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. Of course, the very existence of these discs is, to say the least, unexpected—record discs of TV show audio?—and given the preservation history of the program, a welcome discovery.

Johnny Carson, 1965
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Daniel made brief mention of how very few pre-1972 Tonight Shows exist. How did that happen, and what’s so special about 1972? It’s a longish story, but bear with me. The Tonight Show was originally developed by legendary NBC programming chief Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver in 1954 as a late night companion to the network’s very successful (and profitable) Today morning show. Tonight (as it was then called) was broadcast live from New York and hosted by Steve Allen until 1957, when he was succeeded by Jack Paar prior to Johnny Carson’s legendary thirty year run that began in 1962.

By the time Carson settled in behind the desk, the Tonight Show was being recorded on 2” Quadruplex videotape for rebroadcast on the west coast three hours after being seen in the east; prior to 1959, the show was recorded on 35mm film in a process known as “hot kinescoping,” developed by NBC’s parent company RCA earlier in the decade. Unfortunately, very few of these film kinescopes survive, and it was NBC’s standard practice well into the 1970s to record over the 2” Quads repeatedly until they were no longer of use.

Fortunately, one of the survivors from this period is pretty dear to us—a recording of the 5 October 1965 broadcast where Groucho Marx makes a characteristically hilarious appearance to share the news that the Library of Congress had asked him to donate his personal collection, which he did in 1966. Here’s an excerpt of Groucho on that broadcast, presented with the kind permission of the Carson Entertainment Group.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (excerpt, 5 October 1965)


In 1972, Carson moved the Tonight Show from New York to Burbank, California, and—crucially—purchased the rights to the program from NBC. This transfer of ownership was key, for once Carson owned the show, he immediately ensured that copies were retained. Thus, nearly every Burbank broadcast of the Tonight Show Carson hosted (1 May 1972 to 22 May 1992) survives…and we have copies of all of them!

[By the by, we have copies of the Leno/O’Brien/Leno/Fallon years too.]

Copyright has played a significant role in building our collection of Tonight Show episodes, but not always in ways you might think. Carson didn’t register the 1972-1992 shows for copyright, but once he retired and NBC regained rights to the Tonight Show, the network has been quite diligent about copyrighting the post-Carson episodes (here’s our catalog record for the first broadcast with Jay Leno as permanent host, for example). Now, this doesn’t mean that The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is in the public domain because no episodes were formally registered for copyright at the time of broadcast—television copyright law isn’t that simple—but the fact that the twenty years of Carson ownership were initially unregistered led directly the collection we have today.

Those twenty years spanned two copyright laws with very different formalities, and in 2012 the Carson Entertainment Group availed themselves of a provision allowing shows not submitted for copyright at the time of broadcast but which were offered for syndication (as was the case with Carson’s shows) to be registered at any time as unpublished works. After making sure that all the legal and formal requirements of both copyright laws were met, the Copyright Office registered the Carson Entertainment Group claims. Soon thereafter, nearly 2500 Digital Betacam tapes arrived at the Packard Campus. Every tape was cataloged, digitized, and the digital files are now available for viewing in the Moving Image Research Center.

The King of Late Night still reigns at the Library of Congress.


  1. Nice article Mike. Interesting to note that Groucho Marx also officially introduced Carson as the new host of “The Tonight Show” on Oct. 1, 1962. I believe this only exists in audio format.

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