Let’s say you have two choices to host your legendary late night show, The Tonight Show. In one corner stands the top-rated host in the business, and old school entertainer who takes comic shots at everyone and anyone without regard for politics, but who is friendly with his audience. His show has led its time slot for the last two decades. In the other corner stands a former Saturday Night Live performer with a record of spotty work in movies, a brief history of decent ratings on the back of the star performer, and a political axe to grind. He’s younger than his competitor, but if he takes his place, he’ll face a highly popular and well-established competitor in his time slot.
The former performer is, of course, Jay Leno. The latter is Jimmy Fallon.
NBC is choosing Jimmy Fallon.
There are many obvious problems with the choice. First off, NBC tried this experiment once before, when it moved popular host Conan O’Brien into Leno’s slot. Within months, the ratings had collapsed, forcing NBC to restore Leno to his original time-slot.
Second, Fallon simply isn’t funny. He can’t make it through a sketch without smiling at his own jokes, he laces his material with caustic bites at conservatives (including his bandleader, Questlove, playing a rendition of “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as Congresswoman Michele Bachmann appeared on air, and a ridiculous “slow jam” segment in which Fallon allowed Obama to deliver a campaign speech while singing in the background), and most of all, his monologues read as though they’ve been written by a thousand monkeys on one of their off-days. Leno, by contrast, is consistently funny, and he’s harmless enough to appeal to all audiences. He even drops an Obama joke once in awhile.
Third, and most importantly, NBC is still attempting to make a play for younger audiences. That’s a bad move. The model of advertising embraced by the agencies for the last forty years is largely wrong. That model values viewers 18-49 over older viewers, which is why Glee (FOX) is a more valuable show than The Good Wife (CBS), despite Glee’s lower ratings. The theory goes like this: younger viewers are worth more because if you grab them young, they will use your brand forever. Older viewers are supposedly more set in their buying habits.
There are three major problems with this theory. First, there are far more older viewers than younger viewers thanks to the demographic shift in the country. That means that older viewers are more fertile ground for advertisers, even if the return rate supposedly isn’t as high.
Second, older viewers have far more disposable income than younger viewers. With the economy suffering, middle-aged people who have been working for the last several decades are much better off than their younger counterparts, who are struggling to find a job. If you have no money, you can’t buy products no matter how much Fallon you watch.
Third, there is little to no evidence suggesting that younger people are more malleable in their product choice than older viewers. In fact, there’s a fair bit of evidence to the counter, especially since younger viewers use Hulu and Tivo and skip right through commercials, whereas older viewers wait them out.
Where did this nonsense about younger viewers come from? In the early 1970s, with ABC struggling against its bigger brothers NBC and CBS, the execs at ABC had to make a pitch to advertisers. So they came up with some flimsy social science that suggested that younger viewers (where ABC did decently) were more valuable than older viewers (where they tanked). This quickly became market gospel, with CBS and NBC jumping aboard in order to head off ABC at the pass. It also just so happened that all the new executives at the networks were young and wanted to see a sea change in content. The new “market dictate” fit their bill quite nicely.
We are still living under that model. That means more and more disenfranchised viewers as duds like Fallon are forced down the throats of Leno crowds. The good news is that it won’t be long before the executives lose the great majority of their power over programming choice. With the rise of cable, the plethora of internet content, and streaming abilities, Jay Leno won’t have to look hard to find another outlet for his talents. And many of his viewers will come with him.
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