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Jimmy Fallon off to fast start on 'Tonight'

NEW YORK (AP) - One month in, NBC's generational trade of Jay Leno for Jimmy Fallon at the "Tonight" show is succeeding beyond the hopes of executives who engineered it.

Fallon's fast start is clear in television ratings and even more stark in social media metrics. While too early to declare a new king of late-night TV, the transition is a marked change from how badly NBC fumbled the short-lived switch from Leno to Conan O'Brien in 2009.

"As a guy who's been doing this for 36 years, I don't allow myself to think about this level of success," said Ted Harbert, NBC broadcasting chairman. NBC had hoped for an increase in young viewers and steeled itself to lose some of Leno's older fans, but Fallon's reception was a surprise.

When Fallon premiered on "Tonight" during the Olympics, the franchise hit numbers unseen since Johnny Carson's last week in 1992. Things have settled down but Fallon is still comfortably on top. During the week of March 10-14, Fallon averaged 4.26 million viewers to Jimmy Kimmel's 2.83 million on ABC and David Letterman's 2.78 million on CBS, the Nielsen company said. Fallon has consistently topped the 4.1 million viewers that Leno averaged this season before leaving.

Fallon's lead over his rivals is more pronounced among viewers aged 18-to-49, the demographic NBC bases its advertising sales upon.

Fallon and NBC embrace the way many early-to-bed consumers experience late-night television these days: by watching clips of a show's best moments online. The YouTube clip of Fallon and Will Smith acting out the evolution of hip-hop dancing has been seen more than 12.8 million times. Fallon's lip-sync duel with Paul Rudd on songs by Tina Turner, Foreigner and Queen has nearly 9 million views.

Other popular clips show Fallon, singer Idina Menzel and the Roots performing "Let it Go" with children's instruments and the sliced-and-diced version of newsmen Brian Williams and Lester Holt on "Rapper's Delight."

Each segment is funny, good-natured and utterly impossible to imagine Fallon's old-school predecessor doing.

"What I notice in people's reactions is not just that they like the show and think that it's funny, but they like the feel-good spirit," Harbert said. "There's a total absence of snarkiness, of cynicism. It's just there to make you feel good before you go to sleep."

The anti-show biz style pioneered by Letterman isn't dead, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. But "it may have run its course to some extent," he said, and Fallon's sincerity dilutes the pure snark of Letterman and O'Brien.

"Fallon has been able to change the equation," he said. He's made his mark despite a more crowded competitive landscape, with O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and Arsenio Hall also mining late-night laughs.

During his first month, Fallon generated more than 120 million hits in social media, including Twitter and Facebook posts, and, most prominently, YouTube video views, the research firm RelishMIX said. That's more than double Kimmel, who has 57 million hits. Letterman has 2.3 million hits.

"That lopsidedness is a huge wake-up call to writers, producers of late-night, network marketing departments and other series in all genres that they must 'feed the beast' or die," said Marc Karzen, RelishMIX spokesman.

Aggressive online exposure was a key part of NBC's launch strategy, which included timing Fallon's takeover to coincide with heavy viewer interest in the Winter Olympics, Harbert said. The next step is to find ways to make more money off all that online interest, he said.

Fallon's rivals haven't backed down from the competition. Kimmel got attention during the Winter Olympics for filming a stunt that jokingly suggested a wolf was roaming the halls of a dorm for athletes. With their youthful appeal (Fallon is 39, Kimmel 46), the two men seem primed for a bicoastal rivalry.

Letterman, during an appearance in January at Howard Stern's birthday bash, said Leno's departure wouldn't affect how long he wanted to keep working.

"I would do it forever if it were up to me," he said, before adding a wry aside: "Sometimes, it isn't up to me."

Judging by one of television's most prominent measuring sticks for likability, Fallon's success shouldn't be a surprise. He has a "Q'' score of 19 among viewers aged 18 to 34 - which means 19 percent of people familiar with him consider Fallon one of their favorite personalities, said the company Marketing Evaluations Inc., which polled consumers both before and after the "Tonight" takeover. Kimmel's score was 16 and Letterman's 11, the company said (an average celebrity "Q'' score is 17).

Among young men, Fallon's score shoots up to 24, said company spokesman Henry Schafer. More people that age know who Fallon is than know Letterman, he said.

For older viewers, the graciousness of Leno, 63, during the transition was crucial, Harbert said.

Join the discussion

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Liebchken March 24 2014 at 11:15 PM

Yawn......The only show worse is other un-funny show, Seth Meyers, oh, and the predictable SNL cronyism. Bored.

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caseymacd March 25 2014 at 2:00 AM

I'm over 50, so no longer in that highly-coveted 18-49 demo, but I still find Jimmy Fallon endearingly fresh and funny. He's genuinely happy to see his guests and seems completely in the moment when talking, singing or clowning around with them, which is more than I can say for Letterman on any count. Letterman and O'Brien are snark personified, with Kimmel only a little less so. That said, I only Tivo and later watch any of the late night shows if there's a guest listed I want to see. But I have browsed YouTube for Fallon videos and enjoyed about a half dozen of them so far, including the Kevin Bacon clip. Stay true, Jimmy Fallon...you're a funny, talented nice young man with a long career ahead. :)

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HI BEAUTIFUL March 25 2014 at 1:57 AM

Give the guy a chance to do his thing on this show. New show new city and crowd, needs some time adjustment. One thing that ticks me off are the execs that said no guest on the tongiht show can go on other late shows...............Really, are they kidding. Who are they to tell people what shows they can or can't appear on. That is a pretty sour note and if I was invited ever, they would have no say as to where I would appear. Screw them and I think most people feel the same way.

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nrendigs March 24 2014 at 10:29 PM

Hey, Jimmy's a funny guy amongst his piers but he sure struggles to do a great monologue!! So far no-one has really measured up to Carson or Leno. Jimmy F. is good with the interviews and he's well qualified to imitate many stars, male or female. I can see why the younger crowd's are tuning in. I'm hoping he can calm down enough to get that monologue down right.

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dee lightner March 24 2014 at 8:02 PM

Fallon sucks! First, he insults his audience by acting like he has to explain his jokes, and by using all the twitches and hand gestures and dance steps and just general wiggling around. He need to just stand there and tell his jokes. (that's why it is called stand-up) andf have the decency to think his viewers will "get it".

Second, someone needs to tell him that his audience is out FRONT, not to the right. He is ALWAYS looking at his sidekick, as if for approval! Grow up, Jimmy. Tell the jokes, get the laughs, and interview the guests. that's what we want to see, not slapstick and contempt for the audience!~

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iddottaw March 24 2014 at 7:58 PM

Hello: He is good at celebrity voice impersonation.

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ChingOW Mango March 24 2014 at 8:05 PM

I thought the show was better when Jimmy Fallon was on after Jay Leno - not sure why - if it's the format or what - it's just not the same - almost like now he is trying just a little to hard to laugh and be amused by everything his guests have to say. Some of the 'skits' aren't really funny - just stupid like 13 year olds. I really like Jimmy - and I hope the show does stay on top. I wanted to see Jimmy Kimmel when he was in Austin, TX and ended up watching the whole week and lately his show seems a little more interesting and entertaining! Lately I check in on FK during JK commercials - and then there is ALWAYS David Letterman! Oh yeah - and Conan - and Arsinio - competition is good!

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DON March 24 2014 at 8:01 PM

Jimmy is an a&& and not very mature.................I still give him two years...........everyone will be sick of him by then.

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delciedear March 24 2014 at 7:58 PM

I am in my mid 60's and love Jimmy Fallon. He makes me laugh and he himself is a quick witted child-like sort of person who actally is a very bright. I miss Jay but there comes a time in everyone's life when you have to know when to say "when"........I am not crazy about Seth Myers later in the evenng. I find that much of his comedy is geared toward the younger folks and some just plain doesn't make sense to me. With Jimmy Fallon, it sort of takes guts to follow up on the likes of Johnny Carson and Jay Leno and he seems to be doing it well......

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jaystoys22 March 24 2014 at 8:34 PM

HAT's off to the original Tonight Show in 1954 Steve Allen

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