It’s now been one month since Jimmy Fallon replaced Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show, and he’s doing better than NBC could have ever dreamed: keeping the show No. 1 in late-night US television while also dominating his competitors online.
During the week of March 3 (the most recent week for which ratings are available), Fallon’s Tonight Show attracted 4.537 million viewers, far ahead of broadcast late night competitors Jimmy Kimmel Live (2.744 million) and Late Show with David Letterman (2.761 million). And in the adults 18-49 demo that is most crucial to advertisers, Fallon (1.34) beat Kimmel (0.73) and Letterman (0.56) combined. That’s a 43% increase over what Jay Leno had been averaging this season on Tonight (0.94) before he stepped down Feb. 6.
In the process, Fallon has driven The Tonight Show’s median age down to 52.7, compared to Leno’s 58.4 a year ago. (Kimmel’s show pulls in a median age of 56.2; Letterman’s 59.2.)
Yet while Fallon has successfully maintained Tonight’s ratings dominance while drawing a significantly younger audience, his biggest achievement during his first month is online, where for the first time, people are viewing and sharing Tonight Show clips in massive numbers. His 10 most-watched Tonight clips on YouTube over the past month (from Feb. 17, the day of his first Tonight Show, to Mar. 15) have all garnered more than 2 million views. In contrast, only five of Leno’s Tonight Show clips have ever been watched more than 1 million times on YouTube.
(While all three late night shows also make full episodes and clips available via their respective show websites, their official YouTube clips— which are more easily sharable and not saddled with as many ads and offer a more accurate look at which clips have gone viral.)
Fallon quickly leapfrogged past Jimmy Kimmel, the previous online leader. Even though Kimmel’s most-watched clip (14,719,180 saw the world premiere trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, which debuted on Jimmy Kimmel Live) beat Fallon’s (12,609,311 watched Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing with Will Smith) by more than 2 million views, during the week of March 3, Fallon’s YouTube videos were watched almost four times as often as Kimmel’s, 27.47 million to 7.62 million.
Bringing up the rear online is David Letterman, who like his former competitor Leno has never embraced the internet. Letterman is lucky if his Late Show clips crack 100,000 views (which only happened three times this past month). His most-watched video, a musical performance from the band Future Islands, received a mere 296,642 views.
The numbers make one thing clear: almost immediately, Fallon has made the Tonight Show relevant online in a way it had never been before with Leno at the helm. And in the process, he has validated NBC’s controversial decision to give him The Tonight Show despite Leno’s continued reign atop the ratings. Fallon’s commanding numbers—both on TV and online—have ended (at least for now) any second-guessing that Leno was ushered off too early.
Meanwhile, Fallon and Kimmel’s YouTube success illustrates a key way the late-night landscape has evolved since the early days of Leno vs. Letterman: it’s no longer enough of a coup to simply land a big star; you also have to do something unexpected with them. The majority of both Fallon and Kimmel’s most popular YouTube clips feature big stars doing unexpected things, as opposed to the standard talk show anecdotes that Letterman (and Leno) stick to.
Additionally, now that these clips are so widely shared after the shows air, viewers no longer have to make an either-or decision when it comes to late night viewing. It’s no longer a choice between Fallon or Kimmel or Letterman; audiences can pick and choose segments to watch, and share, at their leisure. Kimmel and Fallon may technically have “late night” shows, but they’re now competing for viewers 24 hours a day.