MBPT Spotlight: Jimmy Fallon Sprinted to a Late-Night Lead and Has Not Looked Back

There were lots of media agency execs who wondered whether the timing was right for NBC to replace Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon as The Tonight Show host, but the ratings numbers for the recently ended broadcast network TV season show the move has been an overwhelming success.

From the time Fallon premiered as host of The Tonight Show on Feb. 17 through the official end of the broadcast TV season on May 21, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon averaged 4.3 million viewers per night, compared to 2.8 million viewers for The Late Show with David Letterman and 2.7 million viewers for Jimmy Kimmel Live, according to Nielsen data.

Fallon, much to NBC’s relief, hit the ground running when he took over, starting with a typical bump over the Tonight Show numbers Leno posted and then settling in at a higher audience total than his predecessor. Leno’s viewer total from Feb. 17, 2013, through May 21, 2013—a year before Fallon’s audience total of 4.3 million—was 3.4 million, making this a win-win for NBC.

Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat, says the timing of bringing Fallon in stopped Jimmy Kimmel from gaining any significant momentum after ABC moved his show up from 12:35 a.m. to 11:35 p.m. in January. 

During his first three months-plus on the air, Fallon drew more viewers among the 18-34, 18-49, 25-54 and even in the 65-plus demo, than his two competitors.

Among the 18-34 demo, Fallon drew almost triple the number of viewers of each of his competitors, with Fallon averaging 698,000 viewers per night, Kimmel averaging 282,000 and Letterman averaging 204,000.

His viewership among the 18-49 demo was just as dominant as Fallon averaged 1.7 million compared to 830,000 for Kimmel and 694,000 for Letterman.

Among the largest demo group to watch the late-night talk shows, 25-54, Fallon averaged 1.9 million viewers, compared to 1.1 million for Kimmel and 941,000 for Letterman. Even among the 65-plus crowd, Fallon squeaked by with a win, pulling in 1 million viewers per night compared to 991,000 for Letterman and 753,000 for Kimmel.

While Kimmel was somewhat competitive among the younger viewers, Letterman stagnated. One agency exec said it was clearly time for Letterman to consider bowing out, which he did.

“Letterman seems to just be going through the motions at this point and his routines are stale,” the exec says. “I think Fallon’s success defeated his spirit somewhat and he realized it was time to go, particularly as he saw his ratings declining.”

Meyers Works as Well

The move NBC made in conjunction with moving Fallon into The Tonight Show role—bringing Seth Meyers in to replace Fallon on the Late Night show at 12:35—has also worked out well. During the last three months of the season following the change, Meyers averaged 1.8 million viewers compared to 1.4 million for his CBS competitor, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.

Much like Fallon, only in smaller total numbers, Meyers also led his competition in the other demos, except for 65-plus, which was a virtual dead heat. Meyers averaged 340,000 viewers in the 18-34 demo compared to 139,000 for Ferguson; 813,000 viewers in the 18-49 demo compared to 453,000 for Ferguson; and 898,000 in the 25-54 demo compared to 519,000 for Ferguson. Among viewers 65-plus, Meyers averaged 339,000 compared to 335,000 for Ferguson.

Some of the debate prior to Fallon taking over centered on his youth, and whether that would make a difference in drawing a younger audience. Clearly it did. Fallon, who’s 39, averaged more 18-34 viewers than Kimmel (who is 46) and Letterman (who is 67) combined. And that was also the case among viewers 18-49. In the 25-54 demo, Kimmel and Letterman, combined, averaged just about 150,000 more viewers than Fallon did alone.

Letterman will stay on for one more season, but Ferguson, who also announced he is leaving as host of the CBS Late Late Show, will depart at the end of 2014. Meanwhile, the jury is out among media buyers as to how Letterman’s replacement, Stephen Colbert, will do in the ratings battle. Colbert, who currently hosts The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, will come in as the oldest of the three late-night hosts at age 50, four years older than Kimmel and 11 years older than Fallon.

All these moves render as ancient history the days when NBC first tried to replace Leno with Conan O’Brien back in June 2009, a move that had disastrous effects, leading to Leno returning as host. While O’Brien got a ratings bump early, the turnaround was swift and by early August of that year, Letterman repeats were drawing more viewers than O’Brien’s Tonight Show.

Could the same thing happen to Fallon this summer before the new season begins in September? Not likely, say media agency execs. 

“I really think Fallon will continue to lead in the time period through the summer and into fall and going forward,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research at Horizon Media. “Late night is a personality-driven time period and obviously Fallon over a period of time has shown he’s likeable.”

Carat’s Gold says, “Next season will definitely mirror this spring. Both Fallon and Seth Meyers have settled in at this point and while we might see slight erosion next season, it won’t be anything out of the ordinary.”

Gold adds that the viewership lead Fallon built up as this season ended will be hard for Kimmel to catch up to. “While ABC has certainly tried to push Kimmel into the limelight through various primetime specials, there would have to be some cultural phenomenon aspect that would have to enter the fray that might bring viewers in to give Kimmel that large a bump. And ABC’s primetime program ratings can’t be expected to be that much help.”

As far as Letterman goes, Gold says, “With next season being his last, CBS will likely do a lot of stunt programming to send Dave off with some fanfare and that might eat into both Fallon and Kimmel ratings a bit, especially toward the end of next season. But it shouldn’t impact fourth quarter that much.”

Can Colbert revive the CBS late show? He does have a large following on Comedy Central but most of those viewers are millennials. They could boost 18-34 viewership a bit if they move with him, but as Adgate points out, the overall CBS audience, particularly in late night, is older.

“I think the Letterman finale will be huge and the biggest audience since Johnny Carson left TheTonight Show in 1992,” Adgate says. “Colbert will get a nice lift from that but it will depend on where the audience plateaus after that. I do think Colbert will have a strong online and social media presence to compete with Fallon and Kimmel there, and he will have some younger-viewer appeal but I suspect the median age for his show will remain well over 50.”

During the last three months of the season, the median age for the Fallon show was 53, while it was 56 for Kimmel and 59 for Letterman. Colbert will have to work hard to reduce that 59 significantly.

In the late late show battle, Meyers’ median age audience since taking over was 50 compared to Ferguson’s 55.

Including two weeks since the regular season ended, the overall viewing numbers have not changed that much. From Feb. 17 through the week ending June 6, Fallon was still averaging 4.2 million viewers compared to 2.7 million for Letterman and 2.6 million for Kimmel.