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Jimmy Fallon faces impossible 'Tonight Show' task (+video)

As 'Tonight Show' host, Jimmy Fallon will try to hold on to Jay Leno's traditional audience while also tempting the social media generation. Analysts say he might not be able to do both.

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Fallon is largely unknown to the older demographic that is the bulk of Leno’s audience base, agrees David Bartlett of Levick, a crisis management and strategic planning firm in Washington. “But that younger audience will be around a lot longer.” 

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Some question the wisdom of such a long transition period. In the Hollywood Reporter article, NBC's Mr. Burke suggested that the network wanted to leverage promotion for Fallon with its coverage of the Winter Olympic Games from Sochi, Russia, next February. But that could backfire.

“NBC executive elites are now giving Leno a year notice to embarrass that company every night,” says Doug Spero, associate professor of mass communications at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., via e-mail. Leno “is going to bash them for a year until he leaves, and he may not even make it the full year because it will get ugly.”

Indeed, as the recent speculation about NBC’s plans for the transition heated up, Leno joked that the snakes St. Patrick drove from Ireland had come to the US and become NBC executives.

The carping is reminiscent of the debacle that ensued the last time NBC tried to unseat Leno in favor of a younger replacement, Conan O’Brien, in 2009. Leno did not go quietly, and NBC gave him a nightly 10 p.m. talk show instead. When his ratings slumped, NBC reneged on its contract with Mr. O’Brien and reinstalled Leno, leaving a trail of nasty recriminations on all sides.

This is being handled somewhat better, because “frankly, the last time could not have been handled any worse,” says Mr. Bartlett of Levick. 

Fallon will do fine, says Jeff McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., by e-mail. “But I believe he will have a hard time matching Leno's numbers or Leno's staying power. Fallon is a clever comedian, but I think his style won't necessarily capture all of Leno's viewers.”

In that way, the transition is further evidence of the evolution of mass media. As the next generation of talk-show hosts struggle for smaller and smaller audiences, they will increasingly redefine the nature of their programs, says Paul Levinson, a media professor at Fordham University in New York and author of “New New Media.”

“In the not so distant future, there will only be fragmented audiences for any given show,” he says, suggesting that the notion of broadcasting that reaches a wide swath of the American public will be a thing of the past.

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