Snoozing through late-night TV

Many younger viewers, a coveted demographic in TV, are ignoring such late-night staples as 'The Tonight Show.' Will Jimmy Fallon taking over for Jay Leno and Seth Meyers arriving on the scene make a difference?

Chris Pizzello/AP/File
Jimmy Fallon (l.) and Seth Meyers at the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Sept. 18, 2011. With Fallon taking over 'The Tonight Show' for Jay Leno, Meyers of 'Saturday Night Live' will host 'Late Night.'

It’s nearly time to crown the new king of the “The Tonight Show.” In early 2014, Jay Leno will hand the reins of NBC’s legendary late-night talk show to Jimmy Fallon, currently the host of NBC’s “Late Night.” With Mr. Fallon taking over “Tonight,” Seth Meyers of “Saturday Night Live” will host “Late Night,” and ABC plans to move Jimmy Kimmel’s time slot up half an hour to compete directly with Fallon.

But will these shifts make a difference among 18-to-49-year-olds, the coveted demographic that catapulted “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” to success?

Though the changes are still months away, entertainment writers are already abuzz with speculation.

According to Nielsen ratings, Mr. Leno wiped the floor with his late-night competitors in the second quarter of this year, attracting an average of 3.57 million viewers per night, while Fallon averaged 1.78 million. David Letterman and Mr. Kimmel lagged with an average of 750,000 and 1 million viewers, respectively.

Time slots, ratings, Jimmy versus Jimmy; the bigger question might be, do viewers really care about any of it?

“Everyone is talking about all these changes in ‘Late Night,’ and my reaction is, ‘So what?’” says Steve Johnson, longtime TV critic and arts writer for the Chicago Tribune. “More and more every year I pay attention less and less.”

Among 18-to-49-year-olds, “The Daily Show” is nearly neck and neck with “The Tonight Show,” with 1.11 million viewers to Leno’s 1.08 million. But in the younger demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds, “The Daily Show” draws almost twice as many viewers than “The Tonight Show,” according to Nielsen.

Mr. Johnson says the main reason younger viewers are changing the channel is the slow format of network late-night shows. Why spend 50 minutes waiting for a celebrity guest who might say something you haven’t heard before, he asks, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert reliably deliver winning political satire packed into 20 minutes?

“The format has essentially been unchanged since the early days of the ‘Tonight Show.’ The difference is now you have half a dozen people doing it,” says Johnson, who allows that there’s still some great comedy on late-night, like Fallon’s hilarious “Evolution of Mom Dancing With Michelle Obama.” But why tune in at night when you can catch the best clips on YouTube the next day?

“You can keep your eyes and ears on social media, and if you hear about something great you can look it up,” Johnson says. “You don’t have to sit there like it’s 1974 waiting for the great moment.”

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