TV NotesBullish on BoyishNBC Hopes Jimmy Fallon Brings Younger Viewers to ‘Tonight’
By Bill Carter, The New York Times
- Feb. 16, 2014
In 2004, as Jimmy Fallon was leaving “Saturday Night Live” after a six-year run creating sketch characters and sharing the “Weekend Update” desk with Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels floated an idea.
Mr. Michaels, Mr. Fallon’s patron at “SNL” and the show’s executive producer, had a hunch that this comedian’s future did not lie in Hollywood and movies, which he wanted to pursue, but on a traditional late-night talk show.
“I always thought that was the best use of his talents,” Mr. Michaels said. “There are very few people who can do that job. I always say there are a hundred U.S. senators and eight people with their own show.”
That instinct has paid off for both men: Starting on Monday, Mr. Fallon, fresh from almost five years of very-well-received work at “Late Night” on NBC, will become the star of that network’s venerable “Tonight Show,” with Mr. Michaels overseeing it as executive producer, now in control of all the most important properties on the NBC late-night landscape.
“I think he’s ready for the moment,” Mr. Michaels said last week.
More than ready, Mr. Fallon is brimming with confidence after his apprenticeship at “Late Night,” which follows “Tonight.” In his stylized club of an office on the sixth floor of NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, known as 30 Rock, Mr. Fallon, lanky, loose limbed and still boyish at 39, was bubbling with enthusiasm. “I’m supremely excited,” he said. “But I’m older. I’ve grown up. I was nervous at the start of ‘Late Night.’ Now I know I can do this show.”
NBC certainly believes he can — and that Mr. Fallon will be up to the daunting challenge of keeping “Tonight” relevant in the face of altered viewing habits, an upheaval in audience demographics and diminishing late-night profits. The network, for a second time, put together a plan to ease a reluctant (and still winning) Jay Leno out of the “Tonight” chair in favor of a new-generation star. (Mr. Leno’s last night was Feb. 6.)
The motive for the change was not purely economic, because “Tonight” is not the profit generator it once was. The show can still make money on a tighter budget, and Mr. Fallon will, at least for a time, make considerably less than Mr. Leno’s reported annual salary of about $20 million. (NBC imposed staff and salary reductions on Mr. Leno in 2012.)
For NBC, the move is more about maintaining a vital piece of its birthright than retrofitting an ATM machine. That is one reason Mr. Fallon will open his “Tonight” in an expensive, elegant renovated studio at Rockefeller Center. Still, to remain an essential part of American culture, “Tonight” required a generational change at some point, adjusting the focus from baby boomers to their millennial kids. Mr. Leno’s audience, while still the largest in late night, had steadily aged. The median viewer was below 50 in 2005; when Mr. Leno left the air this month, it had climbed to 57.8.
The network shows all have older audiences. At ABC, the median age for viewers of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” is 54.2. Then there’s David Letterman, the CBS veteran who has the oldest viewership, with a median age of 58. That audience may expand and get even older, if he inherits some of Mr. Leno’s more traditional viewers, as he did for the eight months when Conan O’Brien (who had a considerably younger core audience) took over “Tonight.”
Though NBC clearly wants Mr. Fallon to hold onto the lead in total audience, the larger question is whether any of the network late-night shows can induce younger viewers to commit regularly. They tend to steer clear of traditional broadcasting, and they realize they can see Mr. Fallon’s best comedy bits the next day on YouTube.
Even with potent competition for younger viewers all over cable, from the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central and Mr. O’Brien on TBS, the host NBC is clearly most concerned about is Mr. Kimmel, who is 46. (The only female host in late-night is Chelsea Handler, 38, on E!) Mr. Fallon has posted steadily climbing ratings recently, but one underacknowledged reason NBC pushed for the change to occur now is that its executives did not want Mr. Kimmel to settle in for too long, taking the competition to the new platforms of online videos and social media. Adding Seth Meyers, 40, as the new “Late Night” host is another NBC move to reassert its late-night block as a continuing franchise, ready to continue its decades of dominance.
But change is always risky, and by almost every estimation, NBC is getting a different kind of host with Mr. Fallon, one who brings talents both new and old to the job.
The new is obvious: He has already moved aggressively to take advantage of the increasing importance of Internet viewing of bits from late-night shows. Like Mr. Kimmel and Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Fallon has broken though with widely watched videos, like his recent “Born to Run” parody with Bruce Springsteen about Gov. Chris Christie’s traffic fiasco. It has had about four million views. That’s modest by Mr. Fallon’s standards. “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” with Michelle Obama is up to 17 million views. And a conversation with his pal Justin Timberlake, all in hashtags, has 21 million.
Mr. Fallon likes extending the shelf life of his best bits on YouTube. It reminds him of his “SNL”-obsessed childhood when he would take a VHS tape of favorite sketches to friends’ houses to play for them. “I was like a human YouTube,” Mr. Fallon said. “I was You-Man Tube.”
But he said he did not want the show to divert itself into a studio for Internet videos. It is unclear whether the videos provide a net gain by building awareness of shows, or a new loss, because viewers know they can see what they like online.
It’s still all about the television show, he said, which is where the old part comes in.
Given the range of his talents — singing, guitar playing, impressions, sketches — the big shift in a Jimmy Fallon “Tonight Show” would seem to be toward a variety show rather than stand-up-based comedy. Mr. Michaels said, “Jimmy is by no means a pure stand-up, far from it.”
Mr. Michaels made a connection to a venerable chapter of show business history, likening Mr. Fallon and Mr. Timberlake to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. “When you see Jimmy and Justin performing on his show or ‘SNL,’ you’re going back to another time, when they were making those kinds of shows and movies. They would have been huge stars, just because they can sing and dance and do jokes.”
Mr. Fallon accepts the comparison: “What I do is more a variety show. It’s always been older in style. I’m an old soul.” His favorite channel on Sirius XM satellite radio is one with big-band era music, the ’40s on 4. “It will be a new take, but the show will have an old soul.”
Specifically, he feels linked to the first “Tonight” host, Steve Allen, who featured humor and music but also wild and silly stunts like climbing into a bowl of banana splits. “I would love for Steve Allen to still be around,” Mr. Fallon said, “because I think he would say, ‘This guy gets it.’ ”
Mr. Fallon acknowledged that his “Tonight” will not be a place to go — at least initially — for hard-hitting interviews with politicians or celebrities dealing with some unpleasantness. When President Obama and Mitt Romney were his guests, Mr. Fallon had them “slow jam the news,” one of his signature bits. If that means taking criticism for soft interviews, Mr. Fallon said, so be it.
“Other people do that better,” Mr. Fallon said. “I leave that to Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. The political stuff? Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, they have it. And Stephen Colbert, who is an animal. He’s amazing. Those guys are good at it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
Of course, Johnny Carson, host of “Tonight” from 1962 to ’92, had to deal with Vietnam; Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman had to deal with Sept. 11. Things will happen, and “Tonight” will inevitably be drawn in.
For that reason, Mr. Fallon recently began extending his monologues on “Late Night” and will extend them more on “Tonight,” though Mr. Michaels noted that one difference would involve inserting news clips to illustrate the humor.
And of course Mr. Fallon still breaks himself up with his jokes. “That’s another difference,” Mr. Michaels said. “Jimmy is enjoying the jokes.”
Will they both enjoy the pressure that is sure to come? They understand the stakes, especially after NBC’s quick leap to the panic button when Mr. O’Brien didn’t immediately retain the Leno-size audience.
“We’re both determined to win,” Mr. Michaels said. “Not so much the ratings, but just to restore and make that show important.” He said he expected a predictably big first night on Monday: “And right after the premiere comes Tuesday. And then there’s another show.” Fortunately, he said, Mr. Timberlake will arrive on Friday as a guest, which creates another event to bookend the first week.
Mr. Fallon is trying to shrug off the pressure. “I don’t think we have to win,” he said. “I just think we have to keep doing better.”
He did acknowledge that there was a primary measuring stick for this new-generation “Tonight Show.” “I think Kimmel is going to be my main competitor,” Mr. Fallon said. “It’s a friendly rivalry, it really is. I needed someone to compete against me, to make me want to be sharper. Jimmy makes me want to be better.”
A winner is harder than ever to determine officially because viewers, especially younger ones, watch entertainment in such different ways now. With “Late Night,” a show that started at 12:35 a.m. (really more like 12:37 a.m.), Mr. Fallon said he told people that he understood it was difficult to stay up that late. He even set up his parents’ DVR so they could see him the next day.
“Now they have no excuse,” he said. “They better stay up — 11:30 is not that late. You can do it now, Mom and Dad. And in Chicago, people really have no excuse — 10:30? Come on, people. There is no excuse. Local news, ‘The Tonight Show.’ That’s the way your life should work. Here’s your schedule. Let’s do this for the next 20 years.”http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/arts/television/nbc-hopes-jimmy-fallon-brings-younger-viewers-to-tonight.html?ref=television