If you still need proof that YouTube and online video are making inroads into the strongholds of mainstream media, look no further than Jimmy Fallon. The new host of the Tonight Show has a mainstream media pedigree second to none. A former cast member on Saturday Night Live and protégé of comedy king maker Lorne Michaels, Fallon new occupies the chair that once belonged to television royals Jack Parr, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno. However, while fans still fondly remember Johnny Carson’s self-effacing wit or Jay Leno’s everyman charm, it may just be Fallon’s YouTube views that secure him a place in TV history.
The Tonight Show is a crown jewel of network television, and the comic seated behind the desk is usually regarded as one of the leading lights of popular entertainment. However, viewership in late-night television has been declining in recent years. This is particularly true among the key 18-35 demographic that advertisers covet. While Jimmy Fallon’s term behind the tonight desk has produced a rise in ratings, the numbers still don’t begin to approach the highs of the mid 90’s, when the format was in its prime and David Letterman and Jay Leno competed to be crowned King of Late Night.
It’s almost certain that NBC executives were aware of this troubling trend when they began searching for a replacement for longtime Tonight host Jay Leno. While Leno’s audience had been skewing older for the better part of the last ten years Jimmy Fallon was reaching a higher percentage of millennials on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. However it’s likely that those same network executives knew from experiences that demographics weren’t enough. In 2010 NBC had tried to orchestrate a similar changing of the guard when they replaced Leno with another former Late Night host, Conan O’Brien, whose similar millennial demographic appeal had failed to turn the tide for The Tonight Show. That experiment ended in dramatic failure when NBC was forced to reinstate Leno. The network suffered weeks of abuse from the media in the process.
In contrast to his predecessors, even seasoned millennial pleaser Conan, Fallon has a secret weapon, a comedy formula that targets the second screen. The format of the Tonight Show has remained essentially unchanged since the days of Jack Parr. An opening monologue, celebrity interviews, a musical guest, all knit together by a comic host. Fallon has modified this formula for the YouTube generation. Just like The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, Fallon’s Tonight Show is more like a string of short YouTube videos than a traditional variety hour. The basic structure of the show remains the same, but Fallon has added games, challenges, and Celebrity sing-alongs all of which are tailor made for the YouTube audience. The segments tend to be short and punchy adding to their sharability and viral potential. Clips posted to the Tonight show channel routinely receive views in the six figure range.
On Fallon’s tonight show online success is a parallel, rather than a secondary, goal. When the Tonight Show’s YouTube channel hit 3 million subscribers yesterday Fallon acknowledged the milestone by posting a special video in which he leads his entire staff in a sing-along. It’s not uncommon for mainstream television programs to operate their own YouTube channels where they repost clips and unused TV content. The Tonight Show’s traditional rival, the Late Show with David Letterman has one as well. However, while Letterman’s channel has yet to crack 50,000 subscribers, The Tonight show is celebrating 3 million subs and climbing. The numbers make it clear that Fallon and his team have taken a special interest in developing Tonight’s YouTube presence as more than just an afterthought. By actively engaging with YouTube and crafting content for the medium Tonight is meeting audiences where they live, and locating 3 million sets of eyes that they can leverage to advertisers.
The idea mainstream media content that’s sharable and social media friendly isn’t a new one, but in most formats social opportunities are limited to suggested hash tags or frequent exhortations to “tweet your thoughts” on an event or an episode. These organized efforts usually pale in comparison with so-called “organic social media moments” which tend to take on a life of their own on social networks. These unanticipated moments of mass sharing can do much to enhance a brand, but they can also be damaging if the moment being shared is presented in the wrong context. By taking ownership and pride in their YouTube views Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show team is leading the charge in reaching demographics that are rapidly slipping away from mainstream television. Perhaps more importantly, Fallon is leading the way toward a media landscape in which the second screen of online video and social media receives a greater share of production value and advertiser investment.