Weekly Column: Three weeks into the post-Jay Leno Tonight Show era, his replacement Jimmy Fallon is still the frontrunner, though his margins have shrunk, his ABC competitor Jimmy Kimmel has regained ground he lost temporarily during Fallon’s highly hyped first week with a Sochi Olympics lead-in. Now the two Jimmys are settling in for the long haul, as they wrestle over America’s late-night viewing habit.
All eyes were on Fallon when he kicked off his Tonight tenure during the second Monday of NBC’s Olympics coverage, with a star-studded week that included guests Will Smith, U2, Jerry Seinfeld, Lady Gaga, the First Lady, and Justin Timberlake. More than 11 million viewers listened as Fallon asked that they give him time to get it right. And, over the course of that first week, with DVR-watchers factored in, Fallon drew the biggest weekly audience Tonight had enjoyed since Johnny Carson signed off after 30 years in 1992 — an average of 10.42 million viewers. Those viewers, NBC noted, had the youngest median age of any weekly crowd for any of the broadcast TV 11:35 PM talk shows this season: 52.6 years.
Then the honeymoon was over.
In Fallon’s Week 2, headline writers turned their attention to ABC’s Kimmel and the ninth iteration of his much-ballyhooed, even more celeb-studded post-Oscar show, which jumped 22% in total viewers year-to-year to nab nearly 7 million viewers. It was the ABC late-night program’s largest-ever overall audience for any single-day telecast in either late-night or primetime and up 20% in the demo, to reach 2.423 million. In each of the country’s Top 3 markets – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – Kimmel’s show coming out of the most-watched Oscarcast in a decade outperformed both the final Tonight broadcast with Leno and the first Tonight with Fallon, in households and in the demo.
Kimmel followed this up the very next night with what members of the media regarded as the Holy Grail of late-night bookings — Toronto’s wildly unpredictable, much-memed Mayor Rob Ford. This past Monday, Kimmel mopped sweat from Ford’s brow, and suggested the mayor might want to get some help if he does in fact have a drinking problem, which Ford laughed off, saying he “wasn’t elected to be perfect” and that he is “just a normal average, hardworking politician.” To which Kimmel respectfully insisted Ford is not only not average, “you are the most wonderful mayor I’ve ever witnessed.” And, while final stats for Monday’s sit-down aren’t available yet, Jimmy Kimmel Live that night achieved a 2.5/6 in metered market homes, jumping 19% (and 50% in the demo) from the prior Monday, to land in his nearest competitive position on a Monday yet against Fallon. That said, Fallon still topped Kimmel by 68% in metered market households and by 89% in demo ratings in the 25 LPM markets, with his former Saturday Night Live Weekend Update co-anchor Tina Fey as guest. (Kimmel’s Oscar surge appeared to have fizzled by Tuesday night where, in Nielsen’s 56 metered markets, JKL fell to a 1.7/5 — well behind Fallon’s 3.5/9 — though ABC’s new 10 PM series Mind Games, with its 0.6 demo rating and its 2, 2.120 million viewers, may have contributed.)
More concerning to NBC than Kimmel’s Ford numbers was Kimmel’s performance last Thursday when his guest was Kerry Washington. On Fallon’s ninth night at the Tonight desk, Kimmel scored his second best JKL night — ever. An average of 3.559 million viewers (and 1.214 million demo viewers) watched him that night, a crowd eclipsed only by his JKL broadcast in which Matt Damon “took over” the show and bagged an average of 3.642 million viewers. Here too Fallon edged out Kimmel, though with his smallest crowd to date (4.456 million viewers and 1.825 million demo viewers) and by his smallest margin to date (just under 900,000 viewers overall and 611,000 demo viewers).
That night, not coincidentally, ABC’s primetime hits Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy returned to original episodes, and Scandal star Washington visited JKL as part of the late-night show’s so-called Scandal Thursdays campaign that began early in the season. Kimmel’s Thursday ratings pop that night was not a one-time event; that Scandal tie-in has been working well for Kimmel this season which, some industry pundits speculate, will put more pressure on NBC’s Thursday primetime slate as viewers are deciding what will be their new late-night viewing habits in the post-Leno era. For late-night historians, it harkens to the days when Leno was still running behind CBS’ David Letterman in the ratings, but gradually began to make inroads on Thursdays after NBC scheduled primetime Friends and ER on the night in the fall of 1994. Not long thereafter, Leno’s Thursday began to pick up. (The interview in which 10.751 million viewers tuned in to hear Leno ask Hugh Grant what he was thinking of when he got arrested for lewd conduct with strumpet Divine Brown — the one that’s credited with changing Leno’s Tonight ratings fortunes — was broadcast in August 1995.)
If Kimmel’s going to pick his shots, you can probably expect to see action on Thursdays. The Thursday before Washington’s visit to JKL, Kimmel temporarily seized control of NBC’s Sochi Olympics storyline when he revealed he’d convinced U.S. Olympic luge sweetheart Kate Hansen to lend him her YouTube and Twitter accounts so his team could post that video of the wolf wandering the hallway of her dorm (actually a mock of her hallway created at Kimmel’s studio). The video triggered a media frenzy (among those who fell for the gag was NBC’s Today show) which caused it to go viral, hitting 6 million YouTube views. That traffic rivals some of Fallon’s Tonight show debut-week YouTube offerings, including his “Eww!” video with Will Ferrell and First Lady Michele Obama, and his History of Rap 5 with Justin Timberlake. That Thursday, Kimmel’s show ratings popped too — 2.431 million viewers (916,000 in the demo) compared to the previous night’s 1.967 million viewers (600,000 in the demo), though, once again Fallon led comfortably, with an average of 7.688 million viewers (3.358 million demo viewers).