Review: Jay who? Jimmy Fallon refreshes, reboots ‘Tonight Show’

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake on The Tonight Show
Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake end a successful first week for Fallon on "The Tonight Show." Photo: NBC

SAN DIEGO, February 22, 2014 – It looks like NBC has a keeper this time.

After Jimmy Fallon’s first full week on the air as host of “The Tonight Show,” the late-night talk program delivered its best ratings in 20 years. Twenty years ago, the show got help from the last episode of “Cheers.” This time, the boost came from the lead-in audience provided thanks to the Olympic Games primetime shows.

Critics looking for reasons (or excuses) for the big numbers will also point to the big name guests on Fallon’s first week of shows: Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Jerry Seinfeld, Justin Timberlake. Note these guests all appeared on Fallon’s “Late Night” show, just not in the same week.

NBC will give “The Tonight Show” a little help with the return of its powerhouse reality show “The Voice” early next week, but Fallon will be on his own Thursday and Friday. Expect ratings to drop off a little. Still, NBC will be extremely happy as long as Fallon is crushing his competitors Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman in the time slot, which he did with ease this week.

NBC will also celebrate as long as most of Fallon’s younger audience sticks with him. NBC cares a little less about anyone watching who is AARP age, because advertisers focus attention on the 18 to 49 year old audience.

The Fallon-led edition of “The Tonight Show” is built for this desirable demographic. This week, Fallon’s show spawned several segments meant for viewing on YouTube and sharing with your friends: Brian Williams performing “Rapper’s Delight;” the barbershop quartet version of rap hit “Ignition” by R. Kelly; and “History of Rap 5” with Justin Timberlake. “History of Rap 5” has 1.6 million views 18 hours after originally airing. These segments were aired on other shows on competitive broadcast and cable networks. It must make their executives cringe.

Why does this matter? Popular videos turn into ratings when they encourage people to check out the show itself. If people decide to set their DVRs and watch later, those viewers count in the ratings called “live-plus-3” when they watch within 72 hours. Fallon’s show is engineered to be DVR friendly.

Jimmy Fallon, Will Farrell and Michele Obama on The Tonight Show.
Skits like “Ew!” with Will Farrell and Michelle Obama play to Jimmy Fallon’s strengths and will keep viewers coming back.

Critics who gripe that Fallon’s monologues aren’t funny, or that he’s a poor interviewer are missing the point. It’s true these aren’t Fallon’s strengths. But it doesn’t matter. Who cares about stale, pre-scripted interviews like those Jay Leno conducted for years when Fallon brings out a celebrity’s real personality playing Charades or shooting baskets with McDonald’s Shamrock shakes? The show is built around Fallon’s talents: smart parodies, superb impersonations, and surprising musicianship. This is what all of us should aspire to do in our jobs.

Think about it. When was the last time you watched a video online of something Jay Leno did the night before? Keep thinking. This is Fallon’s unique quality, built for a web-wise audience. It’s making “The Tonight Show” newly relevant to coveted young adult viewers.

For all these reasons, Fallon is killing it. The ratings will drop off, but he is still going to leave Kimmel and especially Letterman in the dust. Older viewers loyal to Jay Leno are likely to give Fallon a try rather than changing to his competitors. Fallon will easily hang on to his loyal fans that have loved him on “Late Night” for years.

NBC wants viewers to accept the changing of the guard. Those who miss Leno and don’t like Jimmy because he’s not Jay will have to read a book, or wait for Leno to land somewhere else in the near future.

Thanks to Fallon, “The Tonight Show” is must-see TV again. He finds ways to have fun with his guests that allows an audience to get to know them as people and offers the potential of some real and surprising moments, far beyond answering the same stale questions they politely respond to on other shows. This is the way talk shows are going.

When Johnny Carson retired, people weren’t happy with Jay Leno, because he wasn’t Johnny. They had trouble adapting, too. Twenty-two years later, Leno’s fans will need to adapt to someone new, and they will.

But it wouldn’t be a media column without one complaint, and here’s mine: I miss Fallon’s old theme song from “Late Night.” Jimmy and The Roots should have brought it over to the new show.

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Media Migraine and Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +

Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities Digital News” when quoting from or linking to this story.  

Copyright © 2014 by Falcon Valley Group


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  • Anthony aka Baldini

    Wow Gayle, you pretty much have Fallon’s number. Pretty smart analysis. I still prefer watching Kimmel, though, in the rare occasion I watch late night. I find it much easier to catch the best clips the next morning — which as you pointed out conveniently lays right into both Jimmy’s strengths.

    • Fallon is slaying Kimmel in the ratings. I’m surprised, Kimmel is quite good and in a similar vein. He’s truly funny and he goes a little harder edged with his humor than Fallon. Either way, Letterman is being left in the dust. It will be interesting to see if CBS responds in any way. Thanks for the comment!