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Gary Younge
If you want to get elected, talk to Leno

In the early 90s late-night talk show host Jay Leno hid himself in a closet at the NBC studios so he could eavesdrop on the network executives discussing his future on the nation's longest-running entertainment programme - the Tonight Show. His ratings were falling and there was talk of offering the Tonight Show to his principal rival, David Letterman, who was trouncing him every night on CBS.

"My career was at stake," he said in a Playboy interview. "I had to know where I stood. Am I dead meat? Who's on my side and who isn't? I had my supporters ... but it was also fascinating to hear my own eulogy."

Last week Leno, 53, received golden handcuffs worth $100m (£54m) to keep him on the Tonight Show and at NBC until the end of the year, having defeated Letterman, 55, in the ratings for 89 straight weeks. The size of the deal is a reflection not just of how much Leno's personal fortunes have improved but of how important an institution late-night television has become in the United States.

Leno and Letterman, whose shows go out every week night after 11.30 for an hour, are key media figures who book-end the day with the breakfast TV anchors. The result is two different but similar versions of Jonathan Ross on every evening with more politics and fewer rude words. But their combination of political satire, stand-up and celebrity interviews also makes them key cultural and political arbiters who both set and follow the tone of political debate - establishing who and what is game for ridicule and discussion as they feed off and feed the news cycle.

During the last presidential election both sides monitored the late night shows for an indication of how certain issues were playing. "The monologues are evidence of when a certain story really breaks through," Chris Lehane, Al Gore's former campaign press secretary, told the New York Times just six weeks before the 2000 election. "If it makes it on to Leno or Letterman, it means something."

A survey by the Pew Research centre before the last election showed that almost half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, and more than a quarter of all adults, often gained information about the presidential campaign from late-night comedy shows.

If you want to get elected, rehabilitated, generally understood as a regular person or simply not misunderstood as an irregular person you will find yourself on the late-night talk-show circuit. They are crucial media pit stops for presumptive presidential candidates and actors in disgrace alike. During the last election both Gore and Bush did them. It was on Leno's show that Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that he would run for governor of California, and Hugh Grant first appeared after his encounter with Divine Brown to what is now one of Leno's most famous lines: "What the hell were you thinking?"

Leno's primary problem, when he found himself in the closet over 10 years ago, was that he was working in the shadow of the genre's master and founder, Johnny Carson. Carson had been the host of the Tonight show for 30 years before he retired. The show was reputedly offered to Letterman, who turned it down in favour of a fatter salary at CBS. Next on the list was Leno, who at first found Carson's reputation too much to live up to.

The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman first went head to head on August 30 1993. Letterman won that night and kept on doing so for more than 18 months. Things got so bad that the New Yorker published a cartoon of a Leno fanclub T-shirt that read: "I, for one, do not find Jay Leno painfully embarrassing to watch!"

"I sucked," said Leno. "I was trying to do the Tonight Show exactly the way Johnny had done it, and it didn't work. I was an inch from being fired. They were going to shoot me and replace me with Dave."

But gradually, by learning how to be himself, Leno got it together and started to beat Letterman, even though he has always remained less well paid. Leno attracts 6.2 million viewers compared with the 4.4 million for Letterman. But Letterman has won more prestigious awards and is paid roughly $31m - whereas Leno even with his raise will be on between $25 and $27m a year. "I'm still not making Dave money," he says. "But I don't need the money. If you can't live on what I make there's something wrong with you."

Both of them are paid good money for very good reasons. The market that they reach is crucial for advertisers. So much so that two years ago a rival network, ABC, triggered a firestorm when it tried to poach Letterman from CBS with the offer of extra money. Worse still, they tried to use him to replace Nightline by Ted Koppel, which is commonly cited as the nation's last surviving example of current affairs television, just six months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

"The regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy is more essential than ever," said Koppel in a stinging signed rebuke to his employers in the New York Times.

But while Nightline - with an average viewer age of 50 - had higher ratings, Letterman - with an average viewer age of 46 - had an important, if only slightly younger, audience that advertisers will pay more for.

ABC relented in the end but in an election year the regular, satirical take on news provided by the late-night talk shows continues to rise while Nightline's numbers continue to fall.

Leno has already worked out his line of attack on both George Bush and the Democratic nominee John Kerry, who has been criticised for flip-flopping on important issues. "Bush has no position and Kerry has both positions," says Leno. "This is going to be one of the nastiest presidential elections ever. Great, fabulous, good for me."

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