Fallon's 'SNL' Splash Points Way for 2014 Late-night Shift

Jimmy Fallon returned this weekend to Saturday Night Live, his second time hosting the show since leaving its cast in 2004. Along with musical guest Justin Timberlake, the host earned SNL a 3.9 rating among adults 18-49 and its highest-rated broadcast since Timberlake hosted with musical guest Lady Gaga in May 2011 (excluding a shortened telecast assisted by a primetime NFL overrun last year). It was also SNL’s highest rated pre-Christmas broadcast since Robert De Niro hosted with Destiny’s Child in 2004.

Appearing with outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on "Weekend Update"—where Fallon held his first on-air desk job—the soon-to-be Tonight Show host plugged his upcoming promotion. “I hosted Late Night for five years, and now The Tonight Show,” Fallon said. “And then five years after that, I’ll host the Nightly News. And then five years after that the Today show. Then five years after that I’m the new Carson Daly. So this is awesome.” He then high-fived outgoing Update anchor Seth Meyers, who slides into Fallon’s Late Night slot Feb. 24.

The hosting gig came two months before Fallon takes the helm at Tonight Feb. 17, a date that was confirmed last week when he tweeted the show’s new logo and title—The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Not since Johnny Carson has a Tonight host been billed as the show’s star. (Both Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien employed the less momentous “with.”)

But if Saturday night’s ratings are an indicator, Fallon’s star is ready to burn bright five nights a week at 11:30 p.m. If Fallon proves to be a powerful ratings draw on Tonight, he’ll avoid the negative scrutiny that fellow SNL alum Conan O’Brien received when, after an initial bump, his Tonight Show began to lag in ratings behind CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman. O’Brien’s Tonight stint—accompanied by the Custer-esque decision by then-NBC boss Jeff Zucker to move Leno up to 10 p.m.—famously wound up lasting closer to five months than five years.

But the late-night landscape has changed since NBC pulled the plug on O’Brien and handed the most storied desk in late night back to Leno. Letterman, at age 66, is now less of a factor. In ratings for the week of Dec. 9-13, his Late Show finished third with a 0.6 in the 18-49 demo—behind new kid on the block Jimmy Kimmel, whose Jimmy Kimmel Live! finished second at 0.7 a little less than a year after ABC bumped it up to 11:30 p.m. from midnight. ABC made the move believing that Kimmel (age 46) would draw a younger audience than Leno and Letterman, and thus would allow the network to charge a higher premium to advertisers.

Fallon, at age 39, will compete head to head with Kimmel for those young viewers. But his biggest competition, at least at first, will be his predecessor’s ghost. For Dec. 9-13, Leno averaged a 0.9—up 14% from the same week last year. His 3.9 million total viewers topped Kimmel (2.6 million) and Letterman (3.1 million), and he beat both in viewers 18-34.

So in a few weeks Leno will leave The Tonight Show once again as the undisputed late-night ratings king, this time with reports of flirtations with other networks swirling around him. If Fallon is going to fill his shoes—and fill them fast—he’s going to need to treat every night like it’s Saturday night.