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.

By , Staff writer

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    Jay Leno, host of 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,' (l.) and Jimmy Fallon, host of 'Late Night with Jimmy Fallon' are backstage at the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., earlier his year.
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Now that speculation has become confirmed fact – Jimmy Fallon will replace Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" next spring – the question many are asking is: Why fix a show that isn’t broke? After all, Mr. Leno has been routinely winning his time slot against longtime competitor David Letterman and holding his own against upstart Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.

Can Saturday Night Live alum Mr. Fallon do a better job?

In NBC's eyes, "Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent, and this is his time,” NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke told the Hollywood Reporter, a trade publication. “We are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson when he was No. 1."

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But media analysts say NBC is doing its best to find a balance between the disintegrating network television model that "The Tonight Show" dominated for decades and the new viewing patterns among young people, who are as likely to connect with "The Tonight Show" though Twitter as through a TV remote.

While NBC feels Fallon will have broad appeal, his strengths clearly lean toward the younger demographics, analysts say, and that could mean the network will pay a ratings price for its efforts to become more a part of the social media buzz.

“They have to plan for the future, but in order to do that they have to sacrifice the one thing that they have in place, which is a stable audience of older viewers,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

The network needs to prepare for competition against younger hosts such as Mr. Kimmel, but in order to do that they will risk alienating an audience, he says, “that doesn’t care about social media and couldn’t care less about viral videos.”

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.” 

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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