Fallon and Kimmel Are Already Fighting for Late-Night Crown, but It's Not a War

One of the reasons cited for NBC's now acrimonious transition from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon as host of The Tonight Show is the rise of Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. In an interview on Thursday, Kimmel essentially started to rub it in, making us wonder what the future holds in the new late-night landscape. 

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One of the reasons cited for NBC's now acrimonious transition from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon as host of The Tonight Show is the rise of Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. And in an interview on CNN today Kimmel essentially started to rub it in, making us wonder what the future holds in a Kimmel-Fallon landscape.

Kimmel—who notoriously hates Leno—kind of gloated in his Jake Tapper sitdown:

JAKE TAPPER: But do you think it’s a direct - it has to be, a direct response to you coming and–

JIMMY KIMMEL: God, I hope so. I really - I don’t know. I mean, I have no idea. I mean, well, obviously, NBC is looking to move on, because they did it once already. This would be the second time that this has happened. So I mean, it makes perfect sense. And Jimmy Fallon is doing a great job. And he’s very popular. And so, I mean, hey, eventually, it’s going to happen one way or the other. I mean, one way or the other, it gets going to have to happen, right? Right?

(Kimmel also noted that his mother told him to stop badmouthing Leno so frequently.)

We know that NBC is—at least in part—making this move because of Kimmel. Bill Carter, who literally wrote books on both recent famous late night fights, broke the Leno transition wide open in the New York Times. And Carter reports that one of the key reasons that Tonight is moving to New York for Fallon has to do with another Jimmy: "Many TV executives speculated that NBC could not afford to wait too long to promote Mr. Fallon, or it might risk having Mr. Kimmel, 45, lock up the young-adult viewers who are the economic lifeblood of late-night television." The thing is, though, as far as ratings go, late night has still been an old man's game as of late. Or at least one old man's game: Jay Leno.

Both Kimmel and Fallon are seen as keys to younger viewers and higher-profile advertising demographics. Kimmel doesn't like the whole "young" angle to this fracas, he told Tapper, since he imagines doing the job when he's older. (Also, it should be noted that it's not only young people who like Kimmel—this writer's nonagenarian grandmother is a big fan.)

Both Kimmel and Fallon—who are mutually complimentary—have had success with viral videos. Jeanne Marie Laskas's new GQ profile on Fallon for the magazine's April issue, titled "The New King of Late Night TV," elaborated on this approach: "Fallon's brand of comedy included the audience in the experience, and that, it would turn out, was prescient." While Kimmel's videos tend to draw on a "gotcha" candid camera style of segment, Fallon's are milder parodies and can come off like SNL skits. Whereas the 45-year-old Kimmel has a some of the bite of his hero, David Letterman, the 38-year-old Fallon is like a trendy puppy dog—as inoffensive as Leno, but also more hip, and, well, funnier. Somehow it seems like they might maintain a Letterman-Leno balance in terms of tone—that is, if there's no major falling out—with a friendly brand of competition. (In the GQ interview, Fallon's reaction to Kimmel: "Love him! So fun to play with. I'm so happy he's moved to eleven thirty. It's a good move for him. Love him.") 

It's hard to know how they will compete ratings wise, as Kimmel is now up against much bigger fish. Another equal unknown is CBS: Will Letterman stay on past 2014? Or will that network also try for new blood? 

Still, NBC may not be getting rid of Leno that quickly, if a new report from TMZ is accurate. According to TMZ, Leno's going to stay out his contract: "Informed sources connected with the network tell TMZ ... when Jay renegotiated his contract during the Conan O'Brien mess, he demanded and got several penalty clauses that would make NBC take an ENORMOUS financial hit if they pull the plug early." That would keep Leno in his position until 2014.

And Leno is still doing well. Just last week, before all of this broke, Entertainment Weekly reported that during February sweeps Kimmel actually scored lower ratings than Nightline did the year previously, and though Kimmel's had some ratings success, Leno is still a roadblock for him. Lynette Rice of EW explains: "For now, though, beating Leno is the toughest task for the feisty Kimmel: After dominating during his premiere week of Jan. 7 (1.07 million 18-49 viewers versus Leno’s 1.04 million and Letterman’s 820,000), Kimmel has yet to do better than his NBC counterpart when he’s in originals." 

So while NBC may want rid of Leno and his groan-worthy jokes, it might be too risky a financial move right now, even if Kimmel's zeitgeist-y brand of late-night humor may be what eventually overtakes Leno in the ratings. And gives the late shift a new pair of friendly foes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.