Last night Jimmy Fallon kicked off his new job in friendly fashion.
The Tonight Show, starring Jimmy Fallon is launched now by a Spike Lee clip, which looks like every clip, USA, but bears a better pedigree. Still, it is a hug from NYC, the center of all things media.
There was much to smile at- Jimmy's parents, his nerves and reverence for the show's genesis, U2 on the roof, the Roots, nano second cameos by a parade of celebrities...It was endearing TV.
And Jimmy Fallon has mad talents that share DNA with the Once and Future King of Late Night, Johnny Carson. (Characters, musical talent, kindness to guests, willingness to look ridiculous).
But...the reality is that once the hoopla subsides, there will be a pond of late night clones, with the highest caliber of talent, competing for the same audience. And the audience they really crave- young, hip, connected- is unlikely to have any must see TV anymore. Truth is, if there is anything they must see it will be readily available by daybreak via the internet.
So...the show remains essentially the same show it was in Carson's era: Monologue, desk, panoramic backdrop, chair, couch, band. Pranks. Announcer.
This was a hand-off, hardly a revolution. Sure, there's a computer instead of cards, and there are hash tags and Facebook pages. A much hipper
This is because despite all the talk about garnering younger viewers, the pragmatic folks running the NBC empire realize that those younger folks have a deep pool of options on the DVR: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a stack of True Detectives, Adult Swim, Conan, all the crap they missed while doing homework with the kids or putting them to bed, the token HGTV that the wife loves to see without commercials. There is a deep pool of stuff calling to them from Netflix. They are fickle and busy. Tired.
So- the game now is not to lose the steady viewers, those older eyes who are comforted by the sameness. It creates a lowered bar for Jimmy Fallon, and he will need it.
Leno is a very nice person, and an amiable host. But not great. In 22 years, he never made reading the cue cards look second nature. His go-to bits were lame and fake. It was bland. Insomniacs without DVRs love bland: his ratings were about double the other contenders. Where will those habituated viewers go? It's anyone's guess, though it seems that David Letterman is more likely to benefit from a migration. Jimmy Fallon's gentle opening was directed at Jay's audience. His own fans will follow him, but if he does not build upon those numbers, he will be the guy who gutted the audience at Tonight. A failure. That's not really fair, because the times, they are a changing..No, they have changed.
All late night is wobbling, based on the costs involved. How do you sell commercials that are generally skipped? How do you get advertisers to pay more for far fewer viewers? (Carson averaged 12 million, Leno 4-5 million, Kimmel 2.5 million, Letterman 3.0) How do you create patterned behavior in the free-form, multitasking generation? How do you staple your audience to their sheets when they can see the digested version of your product before work?
A TV programmer who didn't grow up in traditional media would view this as an opportune time to counter program. I would welcome a return to Fernwood Tonight type spoof or a funny digest of News/You Tube clips a la Talk Soup, with the smarm edited.
But for now, imitation is a sincere form of flattery. The Tonight Show has returned to its roots. I'll catch Jimmy F. when I catch him. I know he will be charming. But my late night heart is a slut, not a steady. I have a weakness for Jimmy K. and Dave. I also have TWO seasons of House of Cards. All of Sherlock Holmes. Movies I missed.
Still, I appreciate the retro feel of the Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. It telegraphs that I am still in the target audience...of people with eyes.