Given the debacle that unfolded last time NBC tried to hustle Jay Leno along the path to retirement, you'd expect the network to exercise the extremest of caution as the network reportedly prepares to give it another shot.
It needn't worry. A gimlet-eyed look at the facts suggests there's much to be gained in trading Leno for Jimmy Fallon sooner than later -- and surprisingly little to lose.
In mid-2009, when NBC bumped Leno into prime to make room for Conan O'Brien at 11:35 p.m., it was basing its decision on long-term factors, not short-term interests. In fact, Leno was at the time considerably more popular than O'Brien, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc., whose proprietary "Q Scores" are used by decisionmakers throughout the entertainment and advertising industries.
Q Scores are based on surveys that assess both positive and negative public sentiment toward a personality. Before taking over "The Tonight Show," O'Brien had a positive Q of 13 and a negative Q of 38. Leno, meanwhile, had a positive Q of 21 and a negative Q of 26. In other words, he was substantially more liked and less disliked than O'Brien.
When it comes to Leno vs. Fallon, the choice is nowhere near as stark.
In the most recent wave of surveys, Leno had a positive Q of 12 and a negative Q of 24. (The negative score is way down from the peak of 35 it hit in early 2010, when Leno reclaimed "The Tonight Show" and O'Brien left NBC.) Fallon's scores were only slightly less favorable: a positive Q of 10 and a negative Q of 27.
And that's looking only at aggregate scores for the entire population. Marketing Evaluations breaks the data out by demographic segments but only shares that information with clients. It's a reasonable conjecture, though, that Fallon's appeal skews young while Leno's skews older.
That's important because the value of moving Fallon to 11:35 in 2014 is it would help NBC hold the line against ABC, which has made inroads with viewers age 18 to 49 since moving Jimmy Kimmel into that slot. Like Fallon -- and unlike Leno -- Kimmel has a footprint that goes well beyond his television audience, with a knack for producing videos that go viral on YouTube. (Kimmel's video of parents telling their children they ate all their Halloween candy has gotten more than 25 million views; Fallon's "Evolution of Mom Dancing" video with Michelle Obama has racked up more than 14 million plays in a few days.)
And Kimmel's Q scores are better than either NBC host's: positive Q of 16, negative Q of 22. Could we be looking at the new king of late night?
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