Business: Viral Threat to Late Night

10:46 PM PST 01/19/2011 by Tim Goodman
ABC/Michael Desmond

A TCA topic: Why stay up when the best bits end up in your inbox?

Jimmy Kimmel had just finished moderating a panel for the Television Critics Association press tour when a couple of reporters spoke to him about some of the best bits from his show that have gone viral on the Internet.

Kimmel laughed and, at the same time, seemed astounded by the way millions of people find these clips. “It makes me think, ‘Why would they ever watch the show?’ ”

In that single sentence, he summed up a real danger that’s peculiar to late-night talk shows. With Kimmel, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon and George Lopez, late night is littered with funny people doing funny things. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have also had their best moments go viral, but for late-night viewers, the option to forgo watching the show in favor of linking to a few minutes’ worth of clips that have been certified funny is too good to pass up.

Late-night ratings have been on a steady decline for years, partly because of DVR use and increased competition and now the ease of viral video. In 2004, Leno was averaging about 6 million viewers nightly; now he pulls in about 3.8 million on a good night. Letterman, who was averaging about 4.5 million in 2004, now draws about 3.5 million. (Kimmel and Fallon have seen marginal gains.)

It’s not just funny monologues or taped bits from these late-night hosts. Add in some great musical performances and snippets of celebrity interviews gone goofy or surreal, and you’ve got an environment that’s ideal for YouTube and Twitter. In fact, if you follow any TV critics or media outlets on Twitter, it’s almost impossible to go a single day without seeing links to four, five or even eight crazy, weird, funny or embarrassing moments from the late-night hosts.

Point out to a friend that you caught Fallon doing a fall-on-the-ground brilliant impersonation of Neil Young covering Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” where he’s surprisingly joined by the real Bruce Springsteen — and boy, did your pal blow it by not watching — and your attempt at one-upmanship will fail. They’ve been alerted to it. Probably more than once.

The question at hand is whether viral videos are the world’s greatest source of free advertising for a talk show in a highly competitive environment, or if this pop-culture link-orgy of readily available “greatest hits from last night” is putting a real hurt on somebody’s ratings.

Viral videos are the best way for less established hosts to convince potential viewers that their shows are worth watching and key to feeling in the loop. Kimmel got enormous media attention when then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman was in a clip called “I’m F---ing Matt Damon,” which millions of people saw online, followed by an equally popular rebuttal from Kimmel called “I’m F---ing Ben Affleck.” The videos had an immediate effect. They brought hordes of new fans to Jimmy Kimmel Live! and, considering all the celebrities who pitched in, legitimized him as a real late-night contender.

Fallon had no shortage of doubters when he took over NBC’s Late Night, but he created a reputation as a home for cutting-edge musical artists, and the show began getting more notice when those performances popped up online. His cause was furthered by viral pickups of musical spoofs that often ended up with the artists in question (Springsteen, Mick Jagger) getting in on the joke. Priceless advertising.

Readily available clips will likely hurt long-time hosts Leno and Letterman — and even O’Brien, whose TBS show’s ratings have declined precipitously after a strong start. You had to watch it in those early days. After a few weeks? Catch the good bits via links.

With dramas or sitcoms, a great scene or two might pop up online, but it won’t hurt their ratings. Viewers will still want to tune in because there’s more. They want to see the entire Mad Men episode because it’s about tension and atmosphere not just punchlines. They want to watch all 30 minutes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia because the show has strings of viral-worthy moments. But on a talk show, there’s a lot of dull banter, silly stories and self-promotion, and — especially if viewers think Letterman or Leno or even O’Brien is falling into the rut of interviewing familiar stars who are touting current projects — now there’s a very handy time-saver (or sleep-gainer) available.

That can’t be good for ratings, can it?

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