Leno Fights Back

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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  • Mary Sue

    Can't stand Jimmy Fallon. Even that scottish sounding late late night host is better than him. Leno rules all forever.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      craig ferguson SUCKS.

      I have NEVER laughed at anything he says or does in his skits.

      CBS should have tapped Adam Carolla for the gig.

  • syzito

    Very true article.Leno is funny the rest of the talk show hosts are more stupid and rude.

  • Asher

    We have watched Leno for years, he is genuinely funny and didn't just make fun of the left, but all parties…This is a stupid move by NBC. Cleaverness beats modern aggressive leftwing partisan hacks any day.

  • Guest

    Jay Leno: Smooth, polished, professional comedian, whose act has been honed by years of stand-up routines at clubs all over the country.
    Jimmy Fallon: Amateur, third rate talk show host.

  • Questions

    Craig Ferguson, laddie. A funny Scotsman is he.

    • Mary Sue

      ah yes, he is, indeed!

    • Mary Sue

      Ferguson has something Fallon never had.

      Timing.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      ferguson proves that British humor is crap.

      monty python sucked too. Too often it was a bunch of the guys dressed up in old lady clothing and speaking in high pitched voices.

      American humor is real.

      British humour is real dumb.

      • Questions

        You're either not sophisticated or not honest. The English have a comic sensibility that, at its best, is unsurpassed anywhere in the world.

        • SCREW SOCIALISM

          Which british comedians or films have made the world laugh more than…

          Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Laurel and Hardy (Stan Laurel had his greatest success IN the US – NOT the UK, George Carlin, Bob Hope (again his success was in the US and reflected AMERICAN humor, Buster Keaton…

          The british are as good with comedy as they are with heterosexual sex.

          • aliko

            I'd skip Carlin and Allen (the first isn't funny in my book and the second was funny but dropped fast all the way down to pathetic since the 80's).

            US old timers (I hope they won't haunt me for calling me them that..): Don Rickles, Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Goerge Burns and Mel Brooks. They're still funny today and that's how you judge great comedians – like music composers.

            For the UK side, you'd have to look at TV series such as Yes Prime/Minister, which was and still is the act to follow in political humor and it probably represents British humor at its best.

            While I agree the Monty P. was a little over rated but you forgot about the Grandmaster Charlie Chaplin…

            Another funny series is "Are you being served" which is was at times quite daring.

            Bottom line: I think the classic British humor tickles a different area in the brain so it might take some time to get….and U.S wins overall.

            P.S: My favorite talk show host was Aresenio Hall who was intelligent and naturally funny. His show flowed without those endless dead moments you get today from all of them.

          • SCREW SOCIALISM

            ARSENIO HALL????

            The Black "Joker"?

            You must be joking.

            I'd add to the list of greats, the ORIGINAL cast/writers of Saturday Night Live (now it SUCKS), David Letterman when he was on CBS (before he got too old and cranky, possibly from his heart problems), Leno as a GUEST on CBS Letterman, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Henny Youngman, first few years of Seinfled the series, the Simpsons…

            What's wrong with Carlin?

            Who SUCKS?

            Benny Hill, Eddie Murphy…

            Are You Being Served, daring? Not with laugh tracks and nothing funny – unless you think that men dressed as women is funny.

          • SCREW SOCIALISM

            Ooops. I meant to write NBC, Lettermans first home. NBC is where Letterman was GREAT.

          • aliko

            Aresenio was a better interviewer than any of the talk show hosts today and his delivery was on par with the best of Letterman's. He didn't have the nervous/neurotic shticks common to all of the hosts today as if it's a must have form.

            I can't listen to Chris Rock for more than 5 minutes – he's like those small dogs barking at everything that moves. I don't like to be around hysteric people, maybe because I'm a veteran.

            Carlin, like so many of his followers, tries hard to be funny, to the point veins pop out, but nothing beats a relaxed smartass like Groucho or Rickles loaded with a good line.

            "Are you being served" was at the time dealing with issues not usually dealt with on TV (sex, gender) so they kind of broke a barrier. The real humor was in the funny lines and the delivery but I guess if you find Carlin funny, this type of humor might escape you.

            Benny Hill and Mr. Bean can be tiring and they're typical circus clowns minus the costume.

            The only modern comedian I like is Russell Peters but his humor is along the lines of British humor so you might not like him. As he would say – 400 years of British occupation must have made a mark.

            For the U.S side, we should have added Joseph Heller, the writer of Catch-22 and several other good and funny books. I can't think of anyone in the UK who can match the importance of his work and especially Catch-22, on world culture.

            For the UK humor, one could include Winston Churchill but since his mother was American, you need to credit both sides.

      • Mary Sue

        Eh, it depends. The Dead Parrot Sketch was a riot.

  • kasandra

    The one thing the column does not address, however, is that NBC/Universal is owned by Comcast. Comcast is owned by the Roberts family with Brian Roberts being at the top of the heap. Brian Roberts is a close friend of Mr. Obama's and entertains the president when he goes up to Martha's Vineyards. Leno is by far objectively preferable to Fallon but he does something Fallon doesn't do – make jokes about the notoriously thin-skinned Mr. Obama. I'm sure that's all it took. Look, NBC runs MSNBC with its assorted fruits and nuts and, consequently, low ratings. It can't possibly be making any money. Yet, NBC keeps pouring its money and (largely former) reputation into it. See a pattern emerging?

    • Mike

      The old line networks like NBC are all "in the bag" to one degree or another for all things liberal. What NBC is doing melds seamlessly with what these networks do in most aspects of their broadcasting, most notably in their news coverage.

      I'm not a big time late night show fan, but of the shows I've watched, Leno stands out, leagues funnier than his competitors. NBC will lose late night ratings asa result of this move — and, if as umored, Leno goes over to Fox, NBC will lose even more dramatically.

      These network executives are highly slanted morons.

  • mark

    Hello Ben,

    You are very shrewd but do you think NBC executives are making a mistake in 2013 because of questionable research done in the 70's? I don't think the executives are that bright but this is a big money decision and you would think they have figured Tivo into their analysis. Here is my theory. Executives would love nothing better then have Fallon succeed at the time slot and work there for 20 more years. It makes the 40 something executives life that much easier. With Leno there are a couple of possible problems. His act gets old and he has to be replaced after the ratings fell apart. Possibly, he talks about retirement, his shows slip a little and NBC has to pay big money and find a replacement when the cupboard may be bare. My analysis assumes that executives want to make decisions that make their life as easy as possible. Leno will eventually have to be replaced, it will probably be painful so let's get it over with when we have at least, a plausible replacement. I don't watch either comedian though I find Leno pleasant and clever. I assumed Fallon wouldn't be very funny but since I don't watch his show I may be wrong. I also would not be surprised if women prefer Fallon silliness to Leno but NBC has the research I don't. No inside knowledge, just an assumption that the suits are trying to make their life as easy as possible.

    • 11bravo

      It is all about the money. That is what makes the executives comfortable. If ratings drop, so does income. You can't ride out bad ratings for the next 20 years.

      It just seems like a poor decision. That slot is for older audiences – why fight it. That is why Connan flopped.

      • SCREW SOCIALISM

        Conan is a nice guy, but he is NOT funny.

        Conan is now where he belongs – on Cable TV.

      • SCREW SOCIALISM

        Older people go to sleep early.

        Youngins stay up late.

        Ever go to a Comedy club? What age range is the audience?

  • Christy

    I would miss Jay Leno immensely…he actually makes me LAUGH OUT LOUD during his 'Headlines' segment especially, which says a lot for me to laugh at loud at anyone's skits these days. He is sincerely VERY talented with humor, and is sharp as a tack on the punch lines. Definitely a pro. He is truly interested in saying only positive things about his guests, to try to better their careers. I NEVER watch Letterman. NEVER watch Fallon…why would I? I could be sleeping and doing something more productive!! I will most definitely follow Leno wherever he goes and pray it's not a later time slot than what he has now, or it's DVR for me on that one!

  • BLJ

    Leno comes from the tree of Carson. Fallon is a pinhead. No contest.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      Leno is now crap too.

      Leno was GREAT before he got the Tonight Show.

      Watch this clip of Leno on Letterman, when Letterman was GREAT and on NBC.

      Jay Leno @ David Letterman #2, circa 198
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yeeobMBfJs

      Youtube "leno on letterman".

      I used to LOVE Letterman, when he was GREAT, at NBC.

      At CBS he's too political – too much to the left – and too many crappy guests.

  • "gunner"

    leno occasionally pushes my buttons, but then he also pushes everyone's buttons. an equal opportunity comic. i'm not as thin skinned as our great pretender in office, and when he pokes me i chalk it up to freedom of speech, a right we share and enjoy. it would, however, not surprise me to hear that someone in the white house called nbc and advised them the "the man" is not happy, and suggested they do something about it. if they axe leno that will be one more reason to watch less television.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      Do you think that Leno bashes Republicans more than Democrats?

      I do.

      • Christy

        Yes, he bashes Republicans more, but there are times when he's really laid into Obama, which surprised me–in a happy sort of way!! I've often wondered how his audience doesn't boo at some of those Obama jokes since I'm guessing the audience is mostly liberal. But, I appreciate that he isn't as combative like Letterman against Republicans or opposing points of view…he'll say his opinion in a more subtle way. Letterman looks like he'll pop an artery when he's ranting against conservatives. One never knows, maybe Leno is a closet Repubican voter? I'm sure he's for capitalism!

  • Rick_in_VA

    I miss Johnny Carson. That was real talent. Leno's not bad, but he's no Carson.
    The rest are grade school quality, if that.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      Carson had CLASS – something the others will never have.

      Carson did lots of dumb skits too – and became too predictable – his show had it's highest ratings in the 60's – when the culture/music was the BEST.

  • A 23 Year Old Man

    I hardly watch late night because, to be honest, I've found that conservative satire from on-line sites is both educational and the best form of clean, satisfying humor anywhere to be found. That said, I've actually enjoyed Leno monologues and his 'headlines' segment, but the other guys' monologues aren't nearly as good (do they have lazier writers or something?), and the things they do to try to compensate (Ferguson's gimmicks and sideshow skeleton, Fallon's "Dear so and so, thank you" whatever that segment is called…) quite simply are not funny in the slightest.

    The average Friday Afternoon Round-Up at SultanKnish and Trifecta on Youtube by PJTV have more humor than most late night monologues. And on top of it, I actually learn something! It's an easy choice to make.

  • Len_Powder

    "Jay Leno won’t have to look hard to find another outlet for his talents. And many of his viewers will come with him."

    A la 'Glen Beck'. FOX made a big mistake letting him go. What a pathetic alternative in his former time slot!

  • Moliminous

    Yes, there is a vast difference.

    Satire v. Sarcasm
    Admonition v. Ad hominems
    Monologues v. soliloquys
    Comedy v. Funny (weird)

    Heck, and I don't always agree with Leno… but at least he has a talent than transcends a teleprompter.

  • Ghostwriter

    I've seen both Leno and Letterman. I think that Letterman is still angry that Leno got the "Tonight Show" gig instead of him. That's probably why he's so angry these days.