Why Apple Is the True Legacy of Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show

When Johnny Carson stepped down from hosting The Tonight Show 20 years ago this week, Apple was pushing a rudimentary tablet computer called the Messagepad, and analog televisions were the primary delivery system for electronic media, news and entertainment.

Back then, most of us lived on a handful of broadcast networks, a few local options, and maybe 30 or 40 cable channels. The Internet was still a few years away from being pop-culturally relevant, and Tic Tac Toe was on the cutting edge of mobile gaming.

In this smaller media universe, Carson's The Tonight Show regularly attracted 15 million viewers that mostly tuned in between the late evening news and bedtime. Unlike today's late night landscape, where hosts aim for the lowest common denominator (Jay Leno) or have much narrower fanbases (Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson), Carson appealed to the masses by offering a smart and entertaining mix of entertainers, authors, politicians and even animal trainers. He was one of the most recognizable individuals on the planet because he offered a little bit of everything.

The Tonight Show is where most Americans first came to know comedians that would go on to legendary stature including George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. To appear on The Tonight Show -- or, better yet, have Johnny call you to his desk after a monologue -- was a true indicator that you'd made it. In fact, it was almost impossible to succeed as a comedian (and to a lesser extent push a new movie or TV show) without being featured by the Kingmaking King of Late Night.

The Only Thing That Compares Today Is the App Store

In a world with hundreds of television stations, more than one million mobile applications, and a seemingly infinite number of Internet-based options, it is nearly impossible to create a media property with the broad-based appeal of a Carson or a Seinfeld.

Arguably the most successful one to come along since the advent of the App Store nearly four years ago is Angry Birds. Now downloaded more than a billion times across all sorts of devices, Angry Birds made a name for itself on the App Store. It's safe to say its Finland-based developer Rovio would not have a multi-billion dollar valuation if it were not for the original App Store promotion.

More recently, services like Instagram, Draw Something and Square could not attract anywhere near the audiences they are enjoying without the App Store. Apple, more than Android or any mobile platform, is the new kingmaker. Although the App Store doesn't have the reach of Facebook and its nearly one billion users, it is where today's sophisticated audience can go for the best mix of professionally produced entertainment, news and information.

No Longer Lost in the Longer Tail

Like Carson, the App Store is not just about blockbusters but also more niche titles that appeal to a variety of tastes. Carl Sagan, Billy Graham and Jack Hanna were never everyone's cup of tea, which is also true of the vast majority of the apps available to download. The real magic comes when you peel the onion and discover apps that are truly unique to you and your interests.

With more than 600,000 apps and counting, Apple more than Leno, Conan, Letterman or any other heir to the pop-cultural crown, truly provides a little bit of everything. Unlike older episodes of the The Tonight Show that did not feature blockbuster celebrities and were foolishly discarded after their original airing, it is possible to discover apps that appeal to your particular taste and sensibility. You just have to know where (and how) to look.

The punchline here is that the App Store is not the best place to find apps that are already well-known. Word of mouth, your social graph, and recommendations based on what you already know and like do the trick.

And if that doesn't work, there is always the Carnac the Magnificent app to show you the way.