Who will be Pope of Late Night TV?

Of course it's easy to speculate about the future of Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. Let's get started ...

Yes, I know, it’s early to speculate about the future of Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon on the basis of some unsourced rumours. And I also know that the story of a network trying to replace Jay Leno with a younger man has already played out, and remakes are never as much fun. But while I have no idea if the linked story is real or just a rumour somebody put out to see how the public would react, it’s a given that the network will try to replace Leno with Fallon at some point, and now is as good a time as any to discuss how the situation differs from the situation in that long-ago, far-away time when Heroes was still on television.

Leno remains, to the consternation of many (including me, I’m afraid), the #1 late-night host: #1 in viewers, #1 in 18-49. Jimmy Kimmel hasn’t changed that, not yet anyway. He just seems to be the default choice for many people – particularly, I suspect, people who like topical humour but aren’t liberals. Leno carries on that old tradition of delivering the day’s news in humorous form and with no partisan edge (or any edge) to it. That gave him an advantage over Conan O’Brien, who’s never been very interested in political humour; one reason affiliate stations preferred Leno was that his show was a better fit with the 11 o’clock news, because viewers would watch the news and then wait around to hear Leno’s jokes about the news they had just heard. He’s the late-night comic for the old media viewers, and there are still enough of those viewers to keep him in business.

On the other hand, Leno’s position now is probably less secure than it was back when O’Brien was taking over. Back then, the network promised O’Brien the job five years in advance, probably hoping or expecting that Leno’s ratings would decline by the time he left. Instead, he remained popular enough that there were competing offers for him, particularly at ABC, which was considering bringing Leno in at 11:30 and bumping Kimmel to 12:30. Jeff Zucker panicked and did whatever it could to keep Leno from defecting, and the solution he came up with was the crazy 10:00 experiment. (Which, by the way, looks a lot less crazy now that ratings for 10 o’clock shows are even worse than they were in 2009.) Now Leno’s value has declined – all the hosts have declined thanks to declining viewership and increased competition – and because ABC has given 11:30 to Kimmel, that is no longer a plausible option for him. Fox would be tough to get to, even if that network wanted him, because (as Bill Carter explained in The War For Late Night) their affiliates are reluctant to give up the late-night hours. So if NBC took Leno’s job again, his main option would be to do a Conan and take a cable show, which he would probably consider a humiliating demotion. He might do it anyway to keep working, but as O’Brien has proven, once a late-night host goes to cable, he doesn’t make a whole lot of impact. Unless Leno could get a network job, he wouldn’t be a big threat to The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. And his chances of getting a competing network job are not what they were four years ago.

This doesn’t mean there would be no risk involved in installing Fallon, assuming that Leno doesn’t want to go when asked. Replacing the #1 host in late-night was a risky thing to do in the ’00s, and it would still be risky now, just less so because he’s #1 by less. In all likelihood, the ratings for Fallon would be similar to O’Brien’s: far below Leno in total viewers, but strong with young viewers. The advantage now compared to 2009 is that there’s more media awareness of the importance of young viewers to advertisers (network presidents like to argue that this isn’t true, but the shows they choose to renew and cancel seems to belie this). So while in 2009 the coverage focused largely on the fact that O’Brien was losing to Letterman in total viewers, today it would focus more on Fallon’s performance with his young viewer base. Unless he completely bombed with total viewers, he just wouldn’t come off looking as bad; the entertainment media today values 18-49 and 18-34 much more than it did only a few years back. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s a good thing for Fallon.

I don’t even know if Fallon could be considered the best possible choice if you think of The Tonight Show as many viewers still do – as a franchise that needs to deliver certain expected elements. Leno’s Tonight Show has done well because even though it’s never been very good, he delivered some of the things people got used to expecting from Carson: lots of topical humour and regular, comforting comedy bits. O’Brien’s version suffered because he didn’t deliver these things as consistently, and Fallon’s version, if it ever arrives, is likely to be similar. But the counter-argument is that The Tonight Show has very little value left as a franchise, and that people tune in for the host, not the title. If so, they might as well try to install the host of the future while he is still young and popular: one of the problems O’Brien had was that he waited so long to get Tonight that he wasn’t really hot by the time he took over.

The one thing that Fallon might be able to bring to The Tonight Show that Carson had, and that other hosts do not have, is showbiz connections and a sense of a showbiz king hanging out with his buddies. This was one of the big things about the Carson show; he was Mr. Showbiz and people liked it when he was talking with other people who lived and breathed showbiz, like Mel Brooks. Leno is a loner who doesn’t have much involvement in any facet of show business except standup; Letterman has also isolated himself from a lot of the showbiz world; and Kimmel’s whole persona is based on being a punk kid who’d be lucky to know any celebrity bigger than Ben Stein. O’Brien was better connected than Kimmel, but still not a Johnny Carson type of schmoozer. But Fallon has show business pals and isn’t shy about bringing them on the show – like his mentor Lorne Michaels, he projects a sense of comfort within that milieu and an unabashedness about calling in favours. You could see him as a Carson for a new generation of show business phonies, and I use the term “show business phonies” with the most sincere respect: that’s what we want to see when we watch a late night show. The most influential late-night talk shows are The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, a celebration of showbiz artificiality, and Late Night With David Letterman, a parody of same. If Fallon ever takes over Tonight, he could be the man to bridge those two worlds.
Update: As Arthur Daley notes in comments, “Carson was never a schmoozer or ‘insider’. He was a loner, someone who kept his home and work life separate. This fact makes the conclusions incorrect.” True. Like most people who do this kind of job successfully, Carson held himself somewhat aloof from the rest of the industry. I was talking about the image he projected onscreen, as a man comfortable within the old-school show business world with his old-school show business friends, but saying that after the fact is not nearly as good as making it clear in the original post, and that’s what I should have done.

If he ever takes it over. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Remember what happened with O’Brien, and also remember that Leno’s network has so many problems that trying to “fix” a #1 show may be a very low priority. But you never know what broadcast networks will choose to fixate on. The need to get a younger guy in there before Kimmel starts stealing Fallon’s future audience might be something the network is very concerned with. Fallon would also be a lot less expensive than Leno, so it might not even matter financially if he gets low ratings. But then again, that’s what they said about Leno’s 10 o’clock show: the ratings wouldn’t matter because it would be so cheap to produce.

The only things we probably know are twofold. One, that Fallon is next in line for The Tonight Show, and will try to do what he can to get that job and keep it. And two, that Leno is still more popular than Letterman, and probably always will be until NBC can find some way to get another guy into the chair. I never said the late-night world was fair.