NBC announced that Jimmy Fallon would take over "The Tonight Show"… (Robyn Beck / AFP Getty Images )
The laughs aren't what they used to be in late night.
NBC has confirmed weeks of speculation by saying it plans to blow up its late-night schedule (once again) to clear the way for a younger comedian. NBC's "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, 62, has agreed to retire next spring to make way for 38-year-old Jimmy Fallon, whose comedy show currently runs at 12:35 p.m. on NBC.
This season, "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" is drawing 3.4 million viewers an episode, making Leno the undisputed champ of late-night comedy, according to ratings firm Nielsen. Leno has been in the chair 22 years.
However, Leno's audience is considerably smaller than it was 10 years ago. In the 2002-03 season, Leno was routinely attracting 5.8 million viewers a night.
"That's not just in late night -- this is the fragmentation of TV that we've been seeing for years now," Amy Sotiridy, a senior vice president for New York-based advertising buying firm Initiative, said.
“Late-night shows used to be only on the broadcast networks, but now there are shows on the cable channels,” Sotiridy said.
NBC executives were nervous that, unless they made a change in late night soon, they would lose the 18- to 49-year-old crowd that advertisers pay the most to reach. NBC executives are banking on Fallon to help recruit those younger viewers.
Fallon will face plenty of competition for the coveted demographic.
Former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien has developed a young and loyal following on Time Warner's TBS. This season, Comedy Central late-night performers Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have come on strong among 18- to 49-year-olds. According to ratings data from the Viacom-owned network, during the first three months of this year the duo has made a spirited challenge to Leno among that demographic. Stewart has attracted 1.4 million viewers in that category from January through March.
Nielsen data shows, however, that for the current season Leno still wins among the prized demographic with more than 1 million viewers ages 18 to 49. However, his younger audience is considerably smaller than it was five years ago when Leno averaged 1.8 million viewers a telecast in the 18-to-49 age bracket.
"Once viewers get into a pattern of going someplace else, it gets harder to bring them back," said Chet Fenster, managing partner of MEC Entertainment.
Overall, CBS' David Letterman is not far behind Leno, with 3 million viewers a night. Ten years ago, Letterman boasted 4.2 million viewers, roughly half of them in the 18-to-49 demographic.
The newcomer to the time period, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, has shown ratings improvement since he moved to 11:35 p.m. this year. Kimmel's show is averaging 2.16 million viewers a night. More than a third of his audience is 18 to 49.
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