When Jimmy Fallon takes over The Tonight Show for NBC on Feb. 17, he will inherit a franchise that draws the biggest audience in late night. This season through Jan. 12, Tonight averaged an 18-49 liveplus- same-day Nielsen rating 24% greater than its closest competitor, CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman. Tonight also drew 31% more viewers than Late Show (again No. 2).
NBC declined to comment on how they plan to measure Fallon’s success. Considering the debacle of its last late-night transition, the network is likely to be patient with Fallon. As new Tonight Show producer Josh Lieb said at the TCA winter press tour when asked about how ratings may have affected Conan O’Brien’s controversial removal from the show and Jay Leno’s return to it: “I don’t think they’ll do that to anybody ever again.” But NBC—which is using all its promo power to ease the succession—also has expectations, even if it isn’t voicing them publicly.
“This change is going to bring down the age of the average Tonight Show viewer into a more coveted demographic,” says Lawrence Epstein, professor at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. History backs him up.
In the last season that Leno’s Tonight Show was the lead-in for Conan O’Brien’s Late Night, Leno’s audience had, in live-plussame- day numbers, a median age of 55.6, was 14% for viewers age 18-34, and 62% in 50-plus—similar, though slightly younger in all measures, to Leno’s audience this season. The median-age audience for O’Brien’s Late Night was 47.6, with 25% 18-34 and 45% 50-plus. From O’Brien’s first Tonight Show on June 1, 2009, through the end of that season on Sept. 21, his audience had a median age of 46.4, with 26% among the 18- 34 crowd and 43% in 50-plus.
Translation: When O’Brien took over Tonight, he replaced Leno’s audience with his own.
And when Fallon inherited Late Night on March 2 of that year, he inherited O’Brien’s audience. Through the end of Leno’s first run on May 29, Fallon’s median-age audience was 47.4, with 24% 18-34 and 45% 50- plus. It grew younger under O’Brien’s leadin but reverted to form after Leno returned on March 1, 2010—median age 48.6, 20% 18-34, 47% 50-plus through the end of the season on Sept. 19.
If Fallon’s audience composition mirrored O’Brien’s following Leno at 12:35 a.m., it could do the same replacing Leno at 11:35 p.m.
In his first six months on The Tonight Show, O’Brien averaged a 1.2 18-49 rating and 3 million viewers—up 9% in the demo but down 29% in viewers from Leno’s previous six months. And Fallon will face more competitors at 11:35 p.m. than O’Brien did, courtesy of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and Arsenio Hall’s revival in syndication.
“It’s likely that [Tonight is] going to lose some audience there,” says Cindy Stockwell, chief media officer for advertising agency Hill Holliday. “You’re going to see folks who are older, who aren’t going to understand the whole social media piece of what Fallon does.”
Those folks may be poised to switch to Letterman. In November 2013, Letterman and Leno had 39% audience duplication among viewers 50 and older—just four percentage points below Leno’s duplication with Fallon. Among viewers 18-49, Leno and Letterman had only 22% duplication, compared to 51% for Leno and Fallon.
Social and Digital
“How many people watch the skits, primarily between Kimmel and Fallon, online, could help decide which is more popular,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media.
In the immediate term, Fallon will dominate the ratings, but those numbers will begin to settle into a more normal pattern “within the first three to four weeks,” Stockwell says. Once normalness reigns, each network will stake its own claim for bragging rights, with social and digital becoming an important battleground. “Those metrics have become more standard and more readily available and more accepted by advertisers and agencies,” says Stockwell.
Fallon’s Tonight Show will premiere during the last week of NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage. If his ratings bump extends beyond that first week, it provides the network a platform for promoting other programming—including Fallon’s Late Night successor, Seth Meyers, whose show bows Feb. 24.
“Fallon can help them try to prevent a little bit of a post-Olympics lull or slump,” says Matt McAllister, professor of communications at Penn State.
But with Tonight and Late Night both housed in New York, Fallon and Meyers will compete for guests not just with Late Show, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, but with each other.
“I think there will be a rush for high-profile guests,” Stockwell says. “Having bragging rights to being the first one to talk to so and so about such and such will be, I think, something you’ll see more of. But I think that there are enough celebrity happenings to go around.”
Media Buyers Hope Youth Is Served In Late Night
By Jon Lafayette
Media buyers expect Tonight to attract a younger audience with Jimmy Fallon, making it more attractive to advertisers. “Jimmy Fallon’s going to have some more appeal for most of our clients,” says Chris Geraci, president for broadcast at OMD. Last time NBC tried to replace Jay Leno, it was a flop. “They’ve done a much better job this time around,” Geraci says.
Late night has become more fragmented with more cable nets jumping into the fray. In the first nine months of 2013, ad revenue for the top shows fell 5% to $477.4 million, Kantar Media reported. While veterans such as Jay Leno and David Letterman were down, whippersnappers such as Fallon and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were up.
“Ad spending reductions in late-night network talk shows reflect lower unit pricing, as opposed to fewer spots being sold,” says Jon Swallen, Kantar chief research officer. “The price declines are consistent with ratings trends in key demos and an audience profile that continues to get older. In late night, it’s younger demos that command premium pricing.”
Linda Yaccarino, president for ad sales at NBCUniversal, expects Fallon to attract more younger viewers to The Tonight Show right away. “We’re very excited about what Jimmy brings in terms of a multiplatform fan base and a social footprint,” she adds.
Will that translate into higher ad rates? “Talk to me in three months about the show’s performance with him in it and what [NBC is] looking for in the upfront,” Geraci says.