A follow-up query from Jeff Glover:
Interesting explanation of Carson's rerun problems. How does this tie in with the reruns they used to run on Saturday (Sunday?) nights? I don't recall if it was The Saturday Tonight Show or The Sunday Tonight Show.
It was both. From the late sixties through the mid-seventies, NBC offered its affiliates a weekly Carson rerun that was intended for the 11:30 PM Saturday night slot. It initially opened with a graphic and a voiceover by Ed McMahon that proclaimed it was The Saturday Tonight Show. Alas for the network, a number of affiliates decided there was more profit in running an old movie or some syndicated offering in that position. Some didn't broadcast the Johnny rerun at all while others bumped it to 1:00 AM or to Sunday at 11:30.
In other words, The Saturday Tonight Show was running in a large part of the nation on Sunday. Even a few of the NBC O-and-O's ("owned and operated" by the network itself) began to delay Johnny to less desirable slots…so NBC made up a secondary opening — one in which Ed announced you were about to see The Sunday Tonight Show. Each week's episode was distributed with both opening billboards, one after the other, and stations were supposed to edit out whichever was not applicable. At least in Los Angeles, they usually got sloppy and left them both in. Eventually, it dawned on someone to change it so Mr. McMahon proclaimed you were watching The Weekend Tonight Show. Increasingly, viewers watched neither and the ratings for the reruns declined.
Around the beginning of 1975, Carson decided he wanted the weekend reruns off, which gave NBC an opening. Two years earlier, they'd begun airing a rock music program — Midnight Special — after Johnny's Friday night airing and it had snagged a lot of advertisers who weren't buying into NBC's other programming. Some exec decided they should try to come up with a music/variety/comedy show with the same sensibility to replace the Carson reruns. Even though they didn't have a format or host or anything specific in mind, they named the project Saturday Night Live.
I've never seen this mentioned anywhere but it always seemed obvious to me why they picked that name and why they decided the show would be broadcast live, even before they knew what the show was. If they'd called it almost anything else, affiliates could have run it where most of them were, by then, running Johnny's old shows — at 1 AM Sunday morn or 11:30 Sunday night. By doing the show live and calling it Saturday Night Live, they kinda forced affiliates to run it at 11:30 on Saturday night.
By the time the show debuted, however, Howard Cosell was hosting a doomed variety show for ABC called Saturday Night Live, so NBC's offering wound up being called NBC Saturday Night for its first 41 airings — a distinction that almost no one noticed. Everyone thought it was called Saturday Night Live and, once the Cosell program became a distant memory, it was.
One other thing: Most of the shows that tried to park in the NBC Saturday night slot before SNL are long-forgotten but one lingers in my mind. Does anyone reading this recall The Lohman and Barkley Show? Al Lohman and Roger Barkley were popular L.A. radio personalities but for 26 weeks (I think) around 1974, there was an attempt to syndicate a very funny talk show that they did in conjunction with the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. Craig T. Nelson, Rudy deLuca, Barry Levinson and Alan Thicke were among the behind-the-scenes people involved. I'm going to see what I can dig up on the show and post it here but if you have any info, drop me a line. It sticks in my memory as a show that was waaay ahead of its time.