Jimmy Fallon took the “Tonight Show” torch from Jay Leno back in February 2014, midway through NBC’s Sochi Olympics. Pretty much every week since then — save very few exceptions — the “SNL” alum has finished first in his time slot among both adults 18-49 and total viewers. That outright No. 1 claim went away about a month ago.
While Fallon’s NBC talker remains the top dog in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo, key competitor Stephen Colbert has taken over the overall audience tally each of the past five weeks. With Fallon in reruns this week, feel free to pen a sixth “W” for “The Late Show” in permanent ink.
Make no mistake, the latest battle in the ongoing late-night wars has not slayed the former king — but what can the former “SNL” Weekend Update anchor do to reclaim his throne?
Well, for starters, how about airing new episodes? While he’s been steadily losing the total-viewer fight, Fallon did create some momentum with last week’s episodes, as “The Tonight Show” just whittled the gap with “The Late Show” down to five figures for the first time in a month.
OK, fine, everyone deserves a break — now is just not a good time for Fallon to take one. Tonight would be a particularly good evening for “Tonight” to be on, with the Season 1 finale of NBC blockbuster “This Is Us” scheduled. Primetime and late-night have a “good for the goose”-type of relationship, and with no football for seven more months, it’s hard for any show to fare better than the freshman drama.
In that same vein, at least “The Voice” is now back, which is good news for everything that airs in its evenings on NBC. Hurry back from vacation, Jimmy.
Another way for Fallon to re-top Colbert in overall eyeballs would be for Trump to simply cease being president. As much as we all love Colbert for his brilliance, it’s truly the political climate he’s been able to capitalize on that is shuffling things around at 11:35 p.m. Considering the most recent Las Vegas odds wager that Trump won’t actually stay in office through 2020, Fallon (and the majority of Americans) may get his wish.
Speaking of the former “Celebrity Apprentice” host, upon his return, Fallon can try going a bit harder at the Commander-in-Chief’s blunders. The “SNL” alum has been criticized — even by peers — for taking it easy on the guy, and sticking to his fun-and-games throughout this messy administration’s start. Fallon has slightly shifted his style up in response, but he probably has to push it even further for now.
That said, the “Fever Pitch” actor shouldn’t completely abandon what got him here, silly as it may be. If anything, line up the “Thank You Notes,” “Lip Sync Battle,” “Wheel of Musical Impressions” and the best guests bookers can get. Plus, 12:30 guy Seth Meyers has been the NBC talk show host consistently taking it to Trump, so perhaps there’s been a bit of a concerted effort to not cannibalize each others’ shtick.
There’s a big short-term fix with potential here. Fallon seems to have some semblance of a rapport and relationship with Trump, if he can book the sitting POTUS, that would certainly boost his Nielsen numbers — just don’t tussle his hair this time, Jim.
Or how about some live shows? Colbert’s been cashing in on those since Election Night. Any amount of eventizing tends to bring home the bacon a bit more than your run-of-the-mill pre-taped stuff. Spread those wings a bit, buddy.
The main strategy that Fallon can and should employ is patience. The less hysteria surrounding the nation’s top executive, the more likely that TV-viewing habits will return to normal. Of course, with this president, that assumption of normalcy may be less realistic than Trump winning the election seemed prior to November.
While Colbert continues to make headway, he actually missed a pretty big opportunity to jump-start this Trump Train even earlier. Somewhat foolishly, “The Late Show” was in encores for the week beginning January 23, 2017. Of course, the former “Colbert Report” host probably knew he’d be burned out from actual Inauguration Day. Fair enough.
The week prior saw Trump sworn in on a Thursday. On average, Colbert finished just 8,000 total viewers behind Fallon over the five-day period. That’s when everything changed.
Here’s how Colbert’s total viewer victories have trended since:
Week of 1/30: +12,000 over Fallon
Week of 2/6: +134,000
Week of 2/13: +296,000
Week of 2/20: +184,000
Week of 2/27: +85,000
Since Fallon’s a perpetually positive guy, we’ll end this on a happy note for him.
NBC focuses on the full 52-week season, not the traditional September-May one, so its favorite son’s got a few extra months to make up for lost time. And we all know Bob Greenblatt’s going to win the summer.
Worst comes to worst, NBC’s back in February 2018 with its next Winter Games. Just watch what those weeks do for Fallon’s TV ratings — the history of his giant launch is destined to repeat itself. As if that’s not bad enough, the broadcaster will host Super Bowl LII the same month. Sorry, Stephen, enjoy this while it lasts.