MBPT Spotlight: As Leno Loses ‘King of Late Night’ Title, Fallon Looks To Gain the Crown

When Jay Leno ends his more than 20-year run as host of NBC’s Tonight Show following its Feb. 6 telecast, he will depart as “King of Late Night,” averaging about 3.7 million viewers per night, or 800,000 more than CBS’ The Late Show with David Letterman and 1.1 million more than ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Leno’s Tonight Show also increased its viewership in fourth quarter by 300,000, while Letterman’s Late Show audience declined by about 100,000 per night and also saw its median age rise by two years to 59, a year older than the Tonight Show median age viewer and five years older than Kimmel’s, according to Nielsen data.

So the question is, can Leno’s successor, Jimmy Fallon—who takes over as host on Feb. 17, smack in the middle of NBC’s two-week coverage of the Winter Olympics—maintain that momentum and the lead, which Conan O’Brien was not able to do when he replaced Leno for a disastrous short run in 2010?

Letterman is 66 and the oldest of the late-night hosts, with Leno next at 63 and Kimmel at 46. Fallon is only 39, and NBC is hoping he can begin bringing in a somewhat younger audience to the Tonight Show which Kimmel brought to his late-night show when it replaced the older audience newsmagazine Nightline last year at 11:35 p.m. on ABC.

However, simply kicking Leno to the curb, at least in the short-term, might not bring a huge audience influx to the show. Interestingly, while Leno is the oldest late-night host, he is averaging 367,000 viewers 18-34 each night, slightly more than Kimmel’s 315,000, according to Nielsen data. Leno is also drawing 1.1 million 18-49 viewers per night, about 200,000 more than Kimmel and some 350,000 more than Letterman.

When One Must Lead Instead of Follow
In his current 12:35 a.m. slot leading out of the Tonight Show, Fallon in fourth quarter averaged 1.9 million total viewers, including 305,000 viewers 18-34 and 739,000 viewers 18-49. So it’s not a given that Fallon will bring a mass younger audience to his new earlier Tonight gig.

Another risk for NBC is that a sizable portion of the 55-plus audience now watching Leno may shift to Letterman. Leno is averaging about 2.1 million viewers 55-plus, more than Letterman (1.7 million) and Kimmel (1.2 million). Fallon at 12:35 a.m. is averaging 845,000 55-plus viewers.

When NBC replaced Leno with Conan O’Brien in March 2009, the Tonight Show got a short-term bump in the ratings, but a few months later viewership was more than 2 million below Leno levels. NBC, which had moved Leno to primetime, brought him back to the Tonight Show and gave O’Brien his walking papers.

Fallon is expected to get that same initial bump in viewership for the first several weeks. NBC has been promoting him for months now, tapping him to host a recent Saturday Night Live and running a “Best of Fallon” primetime special. The network is also expected to barrage its sizeable Olympics audience with Tonight Show/Fallon promotions. So tune-in to Fallon’s first week as host will most likely be higher than Leno’s 3.7 million viewer average, particularly with some new casual, curious late-night watchers.

Working On the Night Moves
Fallon’s first guest on Feb. 17 is scheduled to be actor Will Smith, and his musical guest will be U2. First Lady Michelle Obama is set for a Feb. 20 visit.

NBC has more riding on the move than advertisers because if the Tonight Show falters under Fallon, buyers can simply move more of their clients’ ad dollars over to Letterman or Kimmel.

Meanwhile, media agency execs are unsure about whether the move is a smart one for NBC.

“It’s hard to say if it is the right decision to push Leno out when he is clearly No. 1 in the daypart,” says Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at media agency Carat. “I probably would have kept him another year or two. Still, NBC knows it will get a ratings bump during the Olympics which will have a halo effect on its late-night offerings.”

Fallon, she says, “will most certainly get more sampling running after the Olympics, so it’s understandable why they chose to do it now. NBC is probably also worried that Kimmel might establish himself among the core target adults 25-54 audience if they don’t act now.”

Gold also sees Kimmel as more of a threat than Letterman to pick up Tonight Show defectors. “Letterman is on the decline and I don’t think many viewers are going to move to him. I think Kimmel might get a slight bump, but I believe most Leno fans will either tune out or find something to watch on late-night cable.”

Sam Armando, senior VP and director, SMGx Strategic Intelligence, says NBC has chosen the “go out while you’re on top” strategy as opposed to waiting for viewership to start to slide. “NBC may realize that while Leno is still No. 1, the show is unlikely to grow any further. So the hope is to have the show’s viewers, who already have decided not to watch Letterman or Kimmel, just to stay with NBC and be joined by a Fallon base.”

Armando adds that the idea of Fallon bringing in the younger audience from his current show because he’s under 40 is a fallacy. “Fallon’s median age audience is 52, only five years younger than Leno’s. The question is: are the nightly audiences Leno audiences or Tonight Show audiences? NBC is hoping it’s the latter.”

Armando agrees with Carat’s Gold that Letterman will probably not benefit from most Tonight Show audience defectors. He points out that while some viewers may try Letterman once Leno is gone, in fourth quarter, 46% of adults 25-54 who watched Letterman also watched Fallon. “So maybe the question is ‘How much will the switch hurt Letterman?” he says.

Kimmel is currently averaging about 700,000 more viewers in his 11:35 slot than he was before making the switch to replace Nightline. His show in the midnight time slot last year was averaging about 1.9 million viewers, which is the same average as Fallon drew in fourth quarter in his show leading out of Leno. Kimmel also brought with him a greater number of 18-34 and 18-49 viewers with the move.

What’s long been a back-pocket plus for Fallon is the publicity and extra exposure he gets online with streaming videos of skits and music bits from his show. His recent parody alongside Bruce Springsteen—a revamped version of the Boss’ Born To Run, which took a swipe at New Jersey governor/ultimate Springsteen fan Chris Christie’s bridgegate mess drew close to 3 million views in the days following its posting. His recent “slow jam” featuring Mitt Romney has drawn more than 2 million views so far. And a singing skit about hashtags with Justin Timberlake a few months ago has produced more than 21 million online views.

Many of those viewers are younger and more digitally savvy and that bodes well for Fallon once he moves into the Tonight Show slot. However, not to be overshadowed, ABC recently released data pointing out that Jimmy Kimmel Live accumulated over 620 million video views during calendar year 2013, an 85% increase over his 2012 total of 335 million viewers. A video of a skit Kimmel did on the show about the “Worst Twerk Fail Ever” drew 9 million views in one week.

Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media believes the late-night battle going forward will be played out in part on the online front, with streamed skits changing the minds of some viewers.

“That is where the future is, and no one knows how to do these better than Fallon and Kimmel,” Adgate says. “Online is where many younger viewers are and these streaming videos of skits taking place on the show can help pull viewers, who may not be watching late-night shows regularly, back into the show telecasts. Dave [Letterman] just doesn’t have as much of an online presence as Fallon and Kimmel.”

Having said that, Adgate adds, “With Fallon moving to the Tonight Show, there’s not going to suddenly be a huge influx of 30- to 40-year-olds watching the show. I really do believe it will be a dogfight and Letterman will be part of it.”

Adgate believes that after Fallon’s initial viewership bump leading out of the Olympics, “the viewer numbers will all be close. I don’t think any of the three will break away from the pack. On any given week, depending on the guests or the gimmicks they promote, any one of the three can be tops in viewers.”

Late-Night Comfort Zone
Adgate also says keeping Leno viewers watching the Tonight Show will depend on how similar Fallon’s format is to Leno’s and how comfortable his fans feel with the new host.

“Fallon, although he’s younger than Leno, has the same comedic feel,” Adgate says. “He’s more mainstream than Conan, not quite as edgy.”

What will also help Fallon is that there is no controversy this time with Leno being replaced as there was in 2009 when NBC clearly removed Leno from the show and replaced him with Conan against his wishes. This time, at least publicly, it is all sweetness and light, with Leno and Fallon recently appearing on a Today show interview with Matt Lauer and heaping praise on one another.

Adgate believes there will also be a new late-night dynamic with Fallon joining the fray. That big rivalry between Leno and Letterman will be gone. He sees both Fallon and Kimmel respecting Letterman more and also respecting one another.

Kimmel is hardly sitting still in the midst of the new competition. Trying to grab a little more audience before Fallon takes over Tonight, Kimmel will welcome the cast of the upcoming movie Monuments Men on Thursday, Feb. 6. The cast includes George Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban and Matt Damon. It will be Damon’s first appearance on Kimmel since Jan. 24, 2013, when he famously “hijacked” the show away from Kimmel.

And Kimmel has at least one perhaps unexpected admirer. In a recent New York Daily News story, Fallon applauded Kimmel’s Web popularity. “Kimmel does a great job with it,” Fallon said. “If there’s some good bit that he does, I email him [and say]: ‘I’m jealous, man.’”

Adgate says, “I see it as a dogfight, but as a friendly dogfight.”