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.
"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.
Not only are the networks facing increased competition from other forms of diversion, Fallon himself faces a ferocious comedy explosion across the TV landscape – from several late-night comedy offerings on the four major networks to shows such as The Colbert Report and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. On almost any given day, there are hours of comedy available to the average TV viewer, who no longer has to wait for the Tonight Show to get a comic riff on the day's headlines, Thompson points out.
"It's hard to figure where Jimmy really fits in this new landscape," says Alan Cross, a freelance comedy writer in New York who used to pen jokes for Fallon during his SNL tenure. The comedian ticks off the various personae already claimed by others: Jay Leno is the most mainstream; while Letterman takes more of an ironic pose, showing the artifice behind the show; and Conan lifts off into the surreal and often over-the-top goofy. Fallon's best bet, he says, is the tried-and-true advice for any performer: Be yourself. "Jimmy can be very funny just when he's being Jimmy," says Mr. Cross, "the only question is whether NBC will give him time to find his audience."
Fallon acknowledges the challenges he faces, saying that as far as he is concerned his primary job is "to make the guests feel comfortable."
The blunt sincerity of that goal, rather than a more comic orientation, suggests that while late night comedy may be facing the problems of a 21st-century media landscape, its heart may be coming full circle to the sort of sincerity more akin to the likes of Dinah Shore and early Carson. These days, says Mr. Erlich, comedians can do ironic, postironic, or sincere because all of those have been done. The only criteria now is whether it works, he says. Fallon will have to prove that moving the Web into late night TV is more than just a gimmick, he adds.
Erlich and his co-host, Ellen Fox, say they have brought interactive components into their show and have learned important lessons. "It's not enough to just throw the machinery of the new generation on the air," he says. "You can't just say we're going to Facebook or Twitter or Digg or whatever." What matters is that the content is integrated with the rest of the show and that it actually has merit on its own. Beyond that, merely "going interactive" isn't going to be enough to develop a long-term audience.
Viewers may tune in to see if their tweets or blog postings made it onto the air, but that won't keep them there for long, Erlich says. "The show will have to offer something more."