Oh NBC, you’re a font of material, really you are.
Mainly today, there’s a major bit of business — Jimmy Fallon starts tonight. What was Late Night with David Letterman and then became Late Night with Conan O’Brien is now Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. That’s huge.
Conan was in charge of the show for longer than Dave, but even Conan acknowledged in his last episode that it all sprung from Letterman; he didn’t quite say it, but essentially, the show was really Dave’s. Carson retiring, Dave leaving Late Night, Leno being brought in for The Tonight Show and Dave’s eventual move to CBS have been much chronicled. Books have been written, and adapted for television; it was a massive shift and one I remember quite clearly. Sure, things have been somewhat smoother this time around with Leno’s departure from The Tonight Show and Conan stepping in, but due to what happened last time around any of the shifts are momentous.
Late night talkers (much like morning news shows) make a lot of money for the networks (and also don’t do a bad job promoting the network’s other products). CBS is apparently currently talking with Letterman about extending his reign over there, with his current deal already netting him (it is thought) 30 million dollars annually. CBS wouldn’t be paying that to Letterman (not the show, Letterman) is they weren’t seeing returns. There’s money to be made in late night, whether it’s Late Night, Tonight, The Late Show, or any of the other network shows.
Fallon starting his tenure is huge, not as big as NBC moving Conan and doing that weird Leno primetime thing next fall, but huge. It’s the sort of moment that anyone who follows the machinations of the television industry watches intensely. Tomorrow you’ll see a whole lot of opinions about Fallon everywhere. Most of them will be negative. Not because the show wasn’t good (although that’s what will be said), but because the show is no longer what Conan did or what Dave did. Fallon may be bad — frankly I’d be surprised if the show was really good tonight — but the important question isn’t about what Fallon does tonight. The important question is if Fallon will be there in a year, in two years, in a decade.
Once upon a time, I worked on a nightly cable talker, not the news-based kind, not really even the funny kind, the celebrity interview-based kind. Sadly, we premiered in July and were canceled in December. I think Fallon will do better than that; I hope Fallon will do better than that. But, late night talk is a brutal field and Fallon is going to need time to make the show his, to grow into the role.
A lot of people are going to be writing tomorrow about how the show is dead in the water, and how Fallon needs to be let go so the should can head in a different direction. Heck, I may write a review tomorrow where I say that the show wasn’t particularly funny and Fallon wasn’t terribly good. You just remember if you read that, and any other negative review, that Fallon ought to be given some time to figure out who he is and what his show should be. He’ll get better, the show will get better. And, if he’s great tonight, he’ll still get better down the line.
Good luck, Jimmy, I’ll be watching.