New host Jimmy Fallon hopes to attract Net-savvy crowd, but faces stiff competition as comedy field opens up.
Universal City, Calif.
THE TECTONIC PLATES that have held late-night television in place since 1993 began to shift this week. NBC's Conan O'Brien exited his post on Late Night and incoming replacement, comedian Jimmy Fallon, will take over on Monday. Much ink was spilled the last time a cocky comic with an Irish name landed in late night real estate 16 years ago. But the television landscape has altered dramatically since then. Now, say most observers, NBC's primary goal is to stanch the steady loss of viewers from traditional television to other entertainment choices. Whoever fills that final hour is a good measure of where those audiences have gone – and where comedy is headed.Skip to next paragraph
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"Comedy is an indication of what time you go to bed," says writer Rob Thomas ("Cupid," "Veronica Mars") with a laugh, "and putting Jimmy Fallon in that time slot is a good sign of what college kids will watch."
The network is clearly targeting "a younger, Internet-savvy demographic," says Mediaweek's TV guru, Marc Berman. His faux dorm-room webcast with Horatio Sanz on Saturday Night Live first put Mr. Fallon in the national consciousness, says Brett Erlich, co-host of the upcoming "The Rotten Tomatoes Show." "That's what Fallon is known for."
During the run-up to his March 2 debut, Fallon has maintained an online video log and hopes to maintain what he calls a strong Internet relationship with viewers. In a conference call discussing his plans for the show, Fallon pointed out that when members of this generation come home, they go to their computers, "not their television." He intends to maintain a close and "interactive" relationship with viewers through his video weblog, which has three fulltime producers.
The former co-host of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update segment says he wants to keep the show topical through its connections with the trends and ideas that interest the younger generation. For instance, he will treat the launch of a new video game just as he would a movie première. The new set also will sport a computer – presumably as more than decoration.
In a response somewhat reminiscent of the head-scratching to which the vir- tually unknown Conan O'Brien was subjected when he arrived, media analysts have been mixed in their support for the new host. Many gifted comedians with more credentials than Fallon have tried and failed at the job of talk-show host, says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He points to such talents as Martin Short and Chevy Chase (both SNL alumni), and Howie Mandel. "This is a job that requires a certain depth and maturity," points out Mr. Thompson, while Fallon is noted primarily for his cute, pranksterish attitude, a skill that won't go far under the pressure of day in and day out hosting. "He will have to show that he has much more to offer," he adds.