Monday night True Detectives 2, a spoof with Seth Rogan premiered on Jimmy Kimmel Live and already has over 212,000 views on YouTube. The fight for late night supremacy has always been measured by one thing: ratings. When David Letterman started The Late Show (after being passed over as Johnny Carson’s replacement in favor of Jay Leno) ratings became more than just numbers. Leno won the ratings matchup almost every night over Letterman and it seemed to further the divide between the two. But that was then, and today late night supremacy is an open field, measured by more than just TV ratings. YouTube ratings for late night shows are now just as, if not more important as TV ratings, and despite the True Detective spoof, on YouTube Jimmy Fallon is the king and Jimmy Kimmel is quickly falling behind.
For the longest time late night was dominated by Leno vs Letterman, then Letterman vs O’Brien, then Leno vs Letterman again. After that debacle, Live with Jimmy Kimmel (which debuted in 2003) gained enough popularity to move time slots and directly compete against Leno and Letterman as he started taking pieces of the cake. Then there was the Conan O’Brien factor who went to TBS and started his show (which starts 35 minutes earlier). With four late night shows all vying for the same type of audience, and numbers for all their shows declining due to competing cable programs and less total viewers in general, it looked like gauging late night supremacy is as difficult as picking the winner of the NCAA tournament; there’s a favorite to win, but no one knows for sure.
2009 was the year the metric for determining a late night king changed forever. An enthusiastic, spastic, almost childlike host named Jimmy Fallon took over for Conan O’Brien on NBC’s Late Night (Conan believed he would be The Tonight Show‘s host of the future at this point). Fallon was different from other late night hosts. Letterman, Leno, Craig Ferguson (host of The Late Late Show) and Kimmel were all stand-up comedians before hosting (Kimmel also gained modest popularity for previously hosting The Man Show), and O’Brien and Seth Myers (new host of Late Night) were both predominantly writers. Fallon was something else. He had performed stand-up, but his strengths were in his impressions and this propelled him to his spot on SNL where he quickly became one of the more famous cast members. After he left SNL Fallon appeared in a number of films, as well as starring roles in Taxi (not a re-make of the Robert De Niro film, completely different) and Fever Pitch. Then in 2009 he took over Late Night where he initially struggled to connect to audiences and did not look completely comfortable. It was not till Fallon went in a new direction and changed what a late night host could be. For those who do not watch the show, Jimmy Fallon is an immensely talented performer who can act, sing and dance with the best, and when he does impressions there are few that are better (just look up his impression of Neil Young singing Fresh Prince of Bel Air . . . it’s amazing). The best part of any show with Fallon (past and present) are the segments after the monologue. That’s when Jimmy debuts his new characters, impressions, taped skits, he plays games with guests, has singing competitions, slow jams with The Roots (his multi-talented house band) and any time an artist does an acapella version of their song with Fallon and The Roots. So what do all these aspects of Fallon translate into? Viral hits, especially on YouTube.
The day Fallon took over the Tonight Show was the day that YouTube views became relevant and decided who was king of late night, and as it stands now, Jimmy Kimmel is number two and falling faster behind Fallon. What set Fallon apart from the others is that he was the first late night host to gain more popularity from his skits going viral then from people actually watching his show. His impressions, the games with guests and the musical performances were not only Fallon’s bread and butter but his most popular segments. This is not to say that other late night hosts do not try different and fun skits. All hosts tape segments outside their studios. Leno had small town news and his car collections, Letterman has his Top 10 List, O’Brien had Triumph the Insult Dog and many other hilarious characters, and Kimmel has some of the best scripted skits in late night; like the many videos he does with Guillermo and his Uncle Frank (RIP), or when his (then) girlfriend Sarah Silverman performed the song, I’m F****** Matt Damon. Still, the same format presides over much of late night. Interviews can get boring. The monologues can be repetitive. The recurring segments are fun but get old. Anyone can watch a band perform on YouTube. Fallon was the first to get away from this when he was on Late Night and Kimmel quickly caught on and started doing the same thing; Kimmel debuted his rebuttal song, I’m F****** Ben Affleck on his post-Oscars show and it instantly became a YouTube classic, and he’s greatly increased the amount and quality of scripted bits he does on the show.
Today’s YouTube ranking paint a different picture. Kimmel leads Fallon in total YouTube subscribers, 3 million to 2.7 million respectively. This means every time Kimmel debuts another installment of his Scandal parody all 3 millions subscribers will see the video on their main screen, and every time Jimmy Fallon has Justin Timberlake on the show and performs one of many songs/skits/acts that they do so well, 2.7 million subscribers see the video on their main page. Given these numbers, it would feel safe to assume with 300,000 more people being directly sent content from Jimmy Kimmel that he would be the clear favorite. What do they say about assuming again?
During the week of March 3 – March 10 alone, Kimmel received 7,624,776 total views on Youtube; not bad. Fallon however, during that same week, received 27,468,996 total views on Youtube. Those numbers almost look like a joke; Fallon received roughly 2.7 views for every 1 view Kimmel received. These are the top two late night hosts on Youtube and number one is running away. What’s worse for Kimmel is that the one area he does beat Fallon in, total subscribers, is likely to not stand for much longer. During that same span (March 3 – March 10) Kimmel gained 53,231 new subscribers, while Fallon gained 192,174 new subscribers; if those trends continue this drastically Fallon will overtake Kimmel in total subscribers in about three weeks, assuming the rate of new subscribers remains constant.
The way people consume content has changed forever with the internet. Live TV viewing has never been lower, DVR’s are in almost every home, and Generation Y is the first generation to start ditching their cable boxes for streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. The game has changed and it’s moved online. Fallon understood this almost immediately and it’s been paying off ten-fold. Leno and Letterman are from a different era and did not/will not change their shows; Letterman at this point is on auto-pilot as he becomes the longest tenured host in late night history, passing Johnny Carson, and may only continue longer than expected to prolong O’Brien or Fallon from eventually surpassing him. O’Brien on Late Night would have done great today, as he was best at coming up with absurd and hilarious skits, but after everything he’s been through and his move to TBS, he’s become more tame, closer to a Letterman. Seth Myers is new to the late night game and he’s still finding his groove, so it’s too early to know what he’ll become, but he’d be wise to start bringing in any of the characters that frequented him on the SNL News desk (bring back Stefon!) and use his greatest skill, writing, to his advantage. (Other popular late night hosts not discussed are John Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central who appeal to the Youtube generation, but the viral life-span of their videos is usually shorter due to the current nature of their content, and Chelsea Handler, host of Chelsea Lately, who relies on her whit and “charm” to gain viewers and rarely gets up to shakes hands with a guest much less filming a viral skit).
It’s a new day. Some hosts will fall, some will rise. On the Youtube mountain, Jimmy Kimmel has separated himself the most from the pack, but Fallon is standing at the summit and Kimmel’s sliding behind.
Opinion By Christopher Dragicevich