Here we are again, NBC looking ahead to replace Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show with a hipper, younger host, and a hipper, younger brand. This time, in place of the loose-limbed bean pole with the shock of untamable red locks as successor, we have the shaggy-haired giggle monster and impression impresario as Tonight Show usurper. So what makes NBC think that Jimmy Fallon is the right man for the job – only three years after Conan abdicated – and, perhaps more importantly, why now?
We actually take a somewhat different view from many television critics and media pundits, who believe this is history repeating itself, with the buffoons at NBC either incapable or unwilling to learn from their mistakes. Yes, if you look at the raw data, this move perhaps makes even less sense than the promotion of Conan to the Tonight Show desk in the summer of 2009. Leno, after returning to the late night centerpiece in February 2010, has held his own, even gaining viewers while NBC’s ratings have plummeted. Fallon, only four years and nineteen days removed from his maiden voyage on Late Night, is perhaps not quite ready yet to ascend, whether that be because he needs to further polish and refine his skills, or because he has not yet established enough of a viewership to command a promotion to Johnny Carson’s old spot. Is Jimmy Fallon, who just a decade ago was the goofball on SNL who couldn’t keep a straight face, ready to tuck in the nation’s older viewers and Slow Jam the News them to bed? And what’s to stop Jay Leno from jumping ship to another network and sticking it to NBC, a possibility was such a concern four years ago that the Peacock gave Jay a 10pm show, an unequivocal unmitigated disaster.
As Bill Carter reports,* this seems to be all but a done deal, with relations between Jay and the network sinking to an all-time low, bitter invective being spewed on each side. Leno, we can assume, is offended by the lack of respect and credit; after all, he’s still winning his slot while the network crumbles, he’s been a good soldier and has gotten nothing but grief for it. But here’s what’s important, and what makes this different from the Conan situation: as Wired argues in their latest issue, the Nielsen Family is dead and the traditional television model is obsolete. Installing Fallon as Tonight Show host – as reports say will happen by the end of 2014 – is not as much about challenging the upstart and Fallon contemporary Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, as it is about trying a new model, attempting to break out of the box. Fallon has built up a rabid fan base with silly sketches and fun games and brilliant taped pieces, all of which have appealed to the web’s viral culture. Certainly, a popular YouTube video – even one as popular as Justin Timberlake delivering an a cappella version of “SexyBack” – doesn’t goose ratings, and it doesn’t do much to affect the bottom line. However, it is indicative of Fallon’s place at the vanguard of new media, of new viewing habits, and at the changing of the guard. Will Fallon alienate some of Leno’s longtime loyal viewers, sending them to Letterman or Kimmel or maybe just to bed early? Sure. But does it really matter, in this current television climate? We’re not so sure.
Also, it’s important to remember that NBC is a moribund enterprise right now. And while that may initially lead one to think that they should keep the one thing that seems to be working, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, we think the opposite is true. So much is dysfunctional at NBC right now that it might be worth it to blow the whole thing up. When you’re routinely getting smacked around by the likes of Univision and AMC and USA (NBC’s own less glamorous, but often more successful cable cousin), why not cut off your perfectly fine nose to spite your brutally beaten face? In a television landscape where numbers mean less and less, NBC, more than any other of the big four networks needs to get creative and change the paradigm. Putting Jay on at 10pm four years ago was changing the game the other way, backward thinking in trying to keep old viewers while embracing new, trying to maximize value under the old model. Moving Fallon to the big chair is looking the other way, trying to stay head of the curve. Why be a slave to the old design, why cling to some antiquated rule that The Tonight Show needs to be in Los Angeles and why keep struggling against the Leno albatross? In a television world where late night talk shows are increasingly irrelevant, why not take a shot a true irreverence? Really, what does NBC have to lose?
Some light background reading:
Conan: Barbarian or Adventurer?
In Defense of Jay Leno/How He Might Screw This All Up AKA More Thoughts on Late Shift 2: Dave’s Revenge
The One in Which We Compare Conan O’Brien to Barack Obama