There has been much debate about whether or not NBC is
making the right move by replacing Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon as host of The Tonight Show in spring 2014,
following the network's coverage of the Winter Olympics.
Very little talk in that debate, however, has included
taking a look back at the ratings debacle that NBC suffered in 2009 and 2010
when the network replaced Leno with Conan O'Brien and less than a year later
brought Leno back after a sizable number of viewers defected with O'Brien as
Back then, the NBC entertainment brain trust under Jeff
Zucker decided to move Leno to primetime and replace him with O'Brien, who was
then hosting the late-night show leading out of Leno. O'Brien took over as Tonight Show host on June 1, 2009, and
Leno began hosting his primetime show that September.
For his five-night-a-week 10 p.m. talk show, Leno cumulatively
averaged 5.1 million viewers and a 1.5 18-49 rating, according to Nielsen data,
which were extremely low numbers for the time.
Meanwhile, O'Brien lost a significant chunk of Leno's Tonight
From September 2008 through May 2009, the last months of Leno's
pre-O'Brien Tonight Show, the series averaged 5.1 million viewers per
night, a 1.4 18-49 rating and a 1.8 25-54 demo rating. These numbers were significantly
ahead of the 3.7 million viewers, 1.1 18-49 rating and 1.3 25-54 rating posted
during that time by CBS' The Late Show WithDavid Letterman.
From June 1, 2009, till January 2010, with O'Brien as host, The
Tonight Show viewership fell to an average 2.9 million viewers, a 1.2 18-49
rating, and a 1.3 25-54 rating. Letterman added about 100,000 viewers to boost
his total to 3.8 million.
Admitting the move hadn't worked, NBC announced it was
cancelling Leno's primetime show and moving him back to The Tonight Show,
which resulted in O'Brien leaving the network after contentious legal wrangling.
NBC heavily promoted Leno's return during its February
coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics and Leno was back hosting The Tonight
Show in March. While Leno regained a large chunk of viewers, many of them
were gone for good.
From March 2010 through May 2010, Leno averaged 4.3 million
viewers and his demo numbers were 1.1 among viewers 18-49 and 1.5 among viewers
25-54. Letterman lost about 400,000 viewers during that period, averaging about
3.4 million per night.
Right now, The Tonight Show is averaging 3.5 million
viewers and a 0.8 18-49 demo rating, still ahead of Letterman, but not with the dominance it enjoyed before the
late-night shuffling of chairs.
Many media industry pundits are writing that it makes sense
to replace the now-62-year-old Leno with the 38-year-old Fallon so TheTonight Show can better
compete with the younger newcomer in the late-night time period, 45-year-old
Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.
ABC shifted Jimmy Kimmel Live! to 11:35 p.m. from its
previous midnight slot in January, switching it with news show Nightline.
Since the shift, Kimmel has averaged a 0.7 in the 18-49
demo, the same as Letterman but a touch behind Leno's 0.8 in the demo. Leno
still has more total viewers than either of his competitors.
Fallon's ratings for his NBC show at 12:35 a.m. leading out
of The Tonight Show slid about 7% from last season. He is averaging a
0.5 in the 18-49 demo, down from a 0.54.
Kimmel's median age viewer is 54, Letterman's is 57 and Leno's
is 58. Fallon's, in the later time period, is 53.
Those praising the NBC move to replace the older Leno with
the younger Fallon reason that Fallon will be able to draw a younger audience
to the 11:35 p.m. show. That, however, might be easier said than done.
Comedy Central, Turner's Adult Swim and MTV all offer
programming that draws solid numbers of millennial viewers in late night. Would
a simple hosting change on The Tonight
Show suddenly draw mass numbers of younger viewers to tune in?
Last season, Nightline at 11:35 p.m. on ABC, with a
median age viewer of 57, averaged a 0.9 in the 18-49 demo. This season, Kimmel,
with a median age viewer of 54, is averaging a 0.7 in the 18-49 demo. So far,
Kimmel is not drawing a mass number of younger viewers.
So, does the age of the late-night show host matter that
much, or does the audience come to see the guests who, for the most part, are
pretty much drawn from the same celebrity pool for all the late-night shows?
And is Fallon going to be funnier than Leno with his opening
monologues? Or a better interviewer? Unless Lorne Michaels, who will executive produce
the new Fallon-hosted Tonight Show,
comes up with a unique format, the viewer will decide based on
simple preference in a similar form.
Fallon's current show posts the same median age viewer of
his head-to-head competitor on CBS, The Late Late Show with CraigFerguson.
Ferguson is 50, and the 38-year-old Fallon is barely beating him in the 18-49
demo, 0.5 to 0.4.
So the whole age argument that reasons 'putting a younger
host means younger viewers will automatically watch,' has lots of holes and the
potential to not pan out like many of the pundits are envisioning.
Some media agency executives believe if a show isn't broken,
then don't try to fix it.
Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at
media agency Carat, thinks NBC should be concentrating on fixing its primetime
schedule and even the Today show before messing with The Tonight Show,
which is No. 1 in its time period.
"I don't think NBC is making a wise move moving Fallon at
this juncture," Gold says.
Gold adds that while Leno can hold his own against Kimmel, Fallon
may have a harder time. "I see Fallon possibly losing to Kimmel in a
head-to-head ratings battle next season, even if NBC promotes the hell out of
Fallon during the Olympics. The Olympics hasn't always been that successful in
launching new shows for NBC."
Gold also says that so far, Letterman has suffered the most from
Kimmel's move to 11:35, not Leno.
Gold points out that Letterman last season averaged a 0.84
18-49 rating and this season is down to a 0.7, with much of that decline coming
since Kimmel's shift.
With all the late-night talk shows averaging median age
audiences over 50, Gold says, few advertisers looking to reach younger viewers
are going to be putting large amounts of dollars in late-night programming
other than NBC's Saturday Night Live.
But Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research at Horizon
Media, believes that if NBC is dead set on replacing Leno with Fallon, the best
time to do it would be leading out of the Olympics, since all the eyeballs will
give the move a fighting chance.
"I think promoting the new show during the
Olympics makes the most sense," Adgate says. "What else would work better? Over
200 million people will be watching the Games across 17 days. When else would
they get that type of attention?"