The year 2013 will go down as a big one for late-night TV, and not because Saturday Night Live was shamed into hiring a black woman for its cast – though that was pretty big. Decades from now, in Theory and Practice of Post-11 PM Programming classes at USC and NYU, aspiring network execs will study 2013 as the year NBC decided to move The Tonight Show back to New York. After months of speculation, a slew of news stories, a handful of NBC denials, a ton of late-night jokes, and one Jay Leno–Jimmy Fallon duet, NBC announced in April it had set a date for Leno’s latest departure from Tonight, and officially named Fallon his latest replacement, adding that The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon will be based in New York City, where the long-running franchise originated.
Tonight’s return to New York drastically changes the late-night landscape. With Tonight at 30 Rock, Lorne Michaels for the first time will have charge of the network’s flagship late-night show as well as Saturday Night Live and Late Night — which SNL alum Seth Meyers will host — and can orchestrate an “event” for a guest across all three programs. NBC can also throw in a Today appearance; it’s also housed at 30 Rock. Lorne Michaels Packaging already has been in effect across the other two NBC late-night programs, say industry navel gazers who note how many SNL guests this season also appeared on Fallon’s Late Night. “It’s pretty much been 100% over the last year and a half,” insisted one. “Now he’ll have more power because [Fallon] will be in a better time slot. You’re talking about somebody who has a big series of stages” to offer, the pundit said.
NBC Broadcast chairman Ted Harbert says the network is working to streamline guest booking across its various celebrity-centric New York-based shows which, starting in the fall, will include a Meredith Vieira daytime talk show. “Every single person selling something comes to New York – it’s part of the swing,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody who only does late-night in Los Angeles and that’s their promotional tour.”
Over at CBS, David Letterman also produces the network’s other late-night talker under his WorldWide Pants banner, but Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show is based in Los Angeles. CBS’ morning program is based in New York, as is Letterman, but CBS This Morning is less pop-culture focused than are its counterparts at NBC and ABC. Meanwhile, Jimmy Kimmel Live‘s network, ABC, has no other late-night talk show; Good Morning America is based in New York as is the syndicated Katie, which is ending in May.
Still, Jimmy Kimmel will give ABC’ a booking advantage among stars working in Los Angeles – particularly on, say, Oscar night, when New York-based Tonight might say to statuette winners, “What we want you to do is, after the Oscars, fly to New York and be on Tonight” – and some will. But that’s a lot harder to sell than, “Will you walk across the street and be on Kimmel’s [Oscar] special — and, while you’re there, could you tape a Celebrities Read Mean Tweets entry and a couple other special video segments that Kimmel will use over the next few nights?” Kimmel will have a huge advantage that night.
But ultimately, the late-night ratings battle may not be won based on geographic location — it may be won digitally. That war between the two Jimmys got fierce in 2013. Fallon’s so-called Late Night Digital Original, Joking Bad, for instance, handed guests Bryan Cranston, Bob Odenkirk, and Aaron Paul nearly 10 million web views as they were promoting the finale of their acclaimed AMC drama series Breaking Bad in September. Kimmel’s camp, meanwhile, clocked nearly 21 million views on his YouTube channel with the second installment of Celebrities Read Mean Tweets – good news for show guests James Van Der Beek, Katy Perry, Zooey Deschanel, Kristen Stewart, Matt LeBlanc, Snooki, and Justin Bieber among others featured in the video. “Jimmy [Kimmel] has so many relationships with actors, who will do the craziest stuff with him because they trust him,” an ABC exec said anonymously.
“What moves the [ratings] needle is Jimmy [Fallon] playing egg suicide with Tom Cruise,” joked Harbert — actually, Cruise and Fallon played Egg Russian roulette, after playing Water War, as Cruise was promoting the release of his new movie Oblivion. Celebrity handlers who initially balked at Fallon’s games and videos now embrace/demand the added value, Harbert said. “People started with, ‘Oh God, we can’t spend extra time on that!’ to ‘What fun stuff do you have to do with our star?’,” he added. “That’s the stuff that goes viral…We now have research that shows it brings people back to the [television] set.”
Late-night’s rising online popularity would likely render the notorious booking wars over “who got who first” even less meaningful in 2014. “For the surprise winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, or the Olympic winner who gave a teary speech thanking his mother, or whoever is the next Justin Bieber and is white-hot for 12 minutes, it’s important to be early in the booking process,” conceded one late-night honcho. “But with an established star, really, who cares where the f**k it aired first. Anybody under the age of 30 is walking around watching it on their phone.”