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Jimmy Fallon's Online Equity Could Redefine Late-Night Success (Analysis)

The web-literate host kicks off his "Tonight" tenure with a built-in brand of viral video sensations and 11.6 million loyal Twitter followers.

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Last Show Muppets - H 2014
NBC
Jimmy Fallon with the Muppets

When Jimmy Fallon steps onto the stage at 30 Rockefeller Plaza's Studio 6-B on Monday night, among the many pressures facing the newly minted Tonight Show host will be the kind of numbers he produces.

Unlike his predecessors and many of his contemporaries, Fallon's success will be measured not just in overnight ratings, but in how his content resonates on the web the next day. Expectations are high, thanks to the bar Fallon set for himself at Late Night. He built his former show's online presence from the ground up, eventually passing the 2 million subscribers mark on YouTube and currently sitting north of 460 million total views.

STORY: Inside The Late-Night Ratings Battle

Fallon takes that following with him to Tonight. And though the tallies may be dwarfed by Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s YouTube haul (3.8 million subscribers and nearly 1 billion views), Fallon has risen to his viral highs on multiple players. For the nearly 22 million YouTube views nabbed by September clip "#Hashtag," co-starring pal Justin Timberlake, for example, a great many more caught the skit on NBC's website. (The network is not so transparent about the views cume on its internal player, where much of its content sees the biggest circulation.)

Giving his telecasts a second life online has been paramount for Fallon since his transition from Saturday Night Live in 2009. When asked by NBC if "the Internet" would play a role in his Late Night, Fallon pushed for them to build what ended up being the first standalone website for a broadcast talker. LateNightWithJimmyFallon.com has served as a day-after hub for his 12:35 telecast for nearly five years, giving his interviews an infinitely longer shelf life.  

"People have to go to sleep at some point, so you can see it all the next day online," Fallon told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. "It's like the show airs twice."

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And whether it's slow-jamming the news with President Obama or breaking into song with Stephen Colbert, Fallon's show moments have always gotten more traction than his interviews or monologues -- unlike Kimmel, who drives most online attention with packaged skits and elaborate pranks, or CBS' David Letterman, whose Top 10 list remains his only significant web effort.

Fallon's recipe of famous friends, a knack for musical numbers and a dominant social footprint -- 11.6 million Twitter followers and counting, more than any other name in late night -- works in his favor. And while he may come to rely on them more heavily than before, he also enters the traditional race in good shape.

Monday's Tonight Show debut should top any ratings Fallon ever saw on Late Night. The earlier time slot, buoyed by a post-Olympics debut, will swell in the coming weeks when viewers old and new inevitably tune in to sample the reincarnation of TV's most venerable late-night property. Ratings pressure also won't be as high as in 2009 when Conan O'Brien saw dips from Jay Leno's Tonight. (Numbers were much loftier across the board back then, and NBC had Leno's 10 p.m. misfire to worry about.)

Season-to-date, Fallon enters the 11:35 p.m. fray in a rather ideal scenario. With an average 0.7 rating among adults 18-49, Fallon's last Late Night season wrapped even with Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s score in the targeted demo -- and better than Letterman's 0.6 rating. Any initial improvement from his former hour will still be a win.