TV on the Rocks: NBC’s Late Night Shake-Up Is a Sign of the Times

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Late night television is dying — plain and simple. The stark truth of that fact is highlighted by Jay Leno’s upcoming departure from “The Tonight Show.” After nearly 22 years on the job, the 62-year-old Leno will next year be replaced by 38-year-old Jimmy Fallon, who currently hosts “Late Night” at 12:35 a.m., directly following “The Tonight Show” on NBC. With viewership down 25 percent over the last 5 years, according to Nielsen, NBC is hoping to resuscitate “The Tonight Show” with a tact that has already backfired once before, leading many to question whether there’s really any saving the format, or whether it’s doomed to become a relic of the past.

In 2010, when NBC tried to move Jay Leno to a 10 p.m. time slot while bumping up Conan O’Brien from “Late Night” to “The Tonight Show,” the network quickly realized its mistake, as Leno’s new program bombed and viewership of “The Tonight Show” declined. Conan and NBC parted ways, and Leno was put back in charge of “The Tonight Show,” but audiences have continued to retreat. The show now averages 3.5 million viewers a night, and only about 1 million in the 18-to-49-year-old category that advertisers target.

NBC, owned by cable operator Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ:CMCSA), hopes that Fallon will help boost ratings among younger audiences, which are considered more valuable to advertisers. But the problem with younger viewers is that they’re increasingly going online for their content, and advertisers don’t consider online viewership as valuable. NBC is banking on that changing, and soon, but it’s a risk.

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