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Jimmy Fallon speaks geek on 'Late Night'

The talk show host is interviewing bloggers and showcasing gadgets in a digital embrace that may help him draw hip, plugged-in consumers who otherwise don't watch much TV.

March 16, 2009|Mark Milian

If the half-dozen Twitter messages Jimmy Fallon sends most days aren't enough, the talk show host cemented his geek credibility last week by interviewing a gadget blogger and the creators of a Web-only show most Americans have never heard of.

On Wednesday, Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht, hosts of the techie favorite "Diggnation," bantered with Fallon on the same love seat previously graced by such celebrities as Robert De Niro, Van Morrison and Cameron Diaz.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Jimmy Fallon: An article in Business on Monday about talk show host Jimmy Fallon's tech leanings included a photo of Fallon with guests Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht, hosts of the Web-only show "Diggnation." The caption, however, transposed the identifications of Rose and Albrecht.

Two days earlier, Engadget Editor Joshua Topolsky talked operating systems and accelerometers while he showed off an early version of the hotly anticipated Palm Pre smartphone.

"Geek out, man," Fallon told him after Topolsky looked sheepish for mentioning the term "user interface."

That's what "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" is doing. As he tries to build a loyal audience for his 2-week-old NBC show, Fallon, 34, is embracing gadgets and digital media more than any of his peers.

Before he debuted on March 2 as Conan O'Brien's successor, Fallon practiced his delivery by posting video clips on his website.

"Late Night" gags involve fake Facebook status updates for audience members. He exchanges tweets -- as Twitter messages are known -- daily with the more than 300,000 people following him on the Web service, and he enlisted their help in compiling questions to ask Diaz on the air.

"You can't do a show nowadays that doesn't mention the Internet," said "Late Night" producer Gavin Purcell, who formerly worked for the G4 cable network, which focuses on video game culture. "It's where people spend so much time every day."

But the geek love also may help "Late Night" attract a demographic that advertisers lust after: hip, plugged-in consumers who otherwise don't watch much television.

"It would make sense to use Fallon as the guinea pig," said Ken Wilbur, a marketing professor at USC. "Experimenting with a new show is always less risky than messing with an established formula. Any strategies that work on Fallon's audience could then be ported to Leno and Conan."

Fallon and Purcell say they're merely trying to reflect the growing importance of tech gear and digital communications in society.

The show host often keeps an Apple laptop open on his desk. He says he's a regular reader of Engadget, one of the most popular tech blogs, and Topolsky said he had noticed Fallon commenting on posts.

Fallon had R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe record the incoming-calls message for his iPhone and told New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to "meet me in front of the Sharp 108" -- a massive high-definition TV -- to pose for photos.

"I love technology and gadgets," Fallon said in an e-mail, adding that he doesn't "see it represented enough on television."

The well-placed products have created rumblings about whether "Late Night" was getting paid to show them off.

Purcell says it's not, though Fallon does eventually plan to demonstrate advertisers' products on the air -- the old-fashioned "now a word from our sponsors" approach that happens to be resistant to commercial-skipping by users of digital video recorders.

"We will be very clear if we're being sponsored," Purcell said. "We're in a time now when products can be content."

Though Fallon's ratings have been decent, outperforming "Late Show With Craig Ferguson" during the same time slot so far, critics have panned his hosting skills as awkward.

But his unpolished, slightly nerdy approach and embrace of technology may give younger audiences something to grab onto, UCLA marketing professor Ely Dahan said. That could appeal to advertisers.

"If you can convince someone at 18 to get a certain kind of credit card or laptop . . . you might be able to hold on to them for a very long time," he said.

In the meantime, Fallon has started returning some favors. Rose and Albrecht had him on their Los Angeles set in January to appear on "Diggnation." Fallon drank beer, cracked jokes and discussed recent submissions to Digg, the social-news site Rose founded.

He also promised to have the pair on "Late Night," saying he wanted to "embrace tech and gaming as much as celebrity." They just didn't expect the invitation to happen during the show's crucial first few weeks. "We sort of assumed it was going to be months before we got onto the show," Albrecht said.

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mark.milian@latimes.com

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