Aftermath: 4 million Leno viewers up for grabs

Jay Leno (right) and Jimmy Fallon in a publicity shot created by NBC last year.

Jay Leno (right) and Jimmy Fallon in a publicity shot created by NBC last year.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

It’s the big question underlying the Jay Leno-Jimmy Fallon switch on “The Tonight Show”: WWTTSFMVD?

That ungainly (and none too clever) acronym means this: What will “The Tonight Show’s” 4 million viewers do?

Four million is the Leno show’s nightly average (most recently for the week of Jan. 13-17).  An hour later, NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” averages around 2 million per night (2.1 million that same week).   Which means: To equal Leno’s average in total viewers: Fallon will need to add about 2 million viewers a night — almost twice the audience he now draws at 12:35 a.m.

He’ll need fewer than that 2 million to beat David Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC at 11:35 though.  Kimmel averages around 2.5 million viewers a night.  Letterman had a nightly average of 2.9 million during the week of Jan. 13-17.

But that’s the battle for “total viewers,” which doesn’t mean much when it comes to selling lucrative commercial minutes in late-night.  The more crucial battleground is the demo race — viewers 18-49 — the so-called “younger” viewers networks crave.

Guess who always wins that battle? Jay Leno — the “old” guy NBC is jettisoning for the “young” guy Fallon.  Leno, 63, had a 0.9 rating in 18-49s during the week of Jan. 13-17.  He beat Letterman, 66, and Kimmel, 46, who tied at 0.6.  At 12:35, Fallon, 39, had a 0.7 rating in the demo — which means he could win the demo race against Letterman and Kimmel at 11:35.

In a nutshell, that’s the reason NBC is moving Fallon to “The Tonight Show” in the earlier time period — because the network believes he can maintain, or possibly improve on, Leno’s dominance in the demo.  Of course, one could argue that the network could just as well have kept Leno there, since he was winning the demo already.  But as far as arguments go, that ship has sailed.

The question remains: What will these 4 million viewers do?  It’s not an easy question to answer:

1) A number of them could go to Letterman: If you subscribe to the theory that older viewers (the ones not in the key target demo anyway) will likely seek out Leno’s only remaining age-group peer in late-night television, then Letterman could experience a sudden spike in viewership.  In fact, it could be enough for Dave to reclaim the top spot in total viewers for the first time since 1995.

2) On the other hand, Leno’s fans chose Jay for years over Letterman: Though they’re close in age, Leno and Letterman are far different, with distinct styles and audiences.  They are so different that the last thing a long-time Leno fan might do is suddenly adopt a nightly Letterman habit.  It’s just as unlikely that Fallon or Kimmel will emerge as credible substitutes for Leno either.  It could come to pass that at least some of these 4 million viewers — perhaps the older ones — might give up on late-night TV altogether.

3) Some of the 4 million will stick around, though, and seek out a new show to watch every night.  And it’s entirely possible they’ll bypass Letterman in favor of Fallon and/or Kimmel.  Still, for the diehard Leno fan of a certain age, the younger, manic comedy of Fallon will take some getting used-to.  (Really — sometimes watching Fallon is like watching a hyperactive child.)   As for Kimmel, he has a comedic point-of-view that’s all his own, and he has been famously outspoken about his personal distaste for Leno — which could prevent some Leno fans from adopting a Kimmel habit.  One possible scenario: The Leno audience will get split primarily between Fallon and Letterman, leaving Kimmel pretty much where he is now, with 2.5 million viewers nightly.

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