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How Twitter helped Fallon get Leno's job

By Ed Bark, Special to CNN
updated 12:12 PM EDT, Thu April 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ed Bark: Jay Leno still No. 1 in late night for NBC, but network replacing him with Jimmy Fallon
  • He says NBC says it's Fallon's time, and that may have much to do with social media
  • He says Fallon, O'Brien can deliver Twitter, other followers that Leno, Letterman can't
  • Bark: Network making it clear that's important. But can it turn social media sway into money?

Editor's note: Ed Bark, former longtime TV critic of The Dallas Morning News, blogs about TV at the website unclebarky.com.

(CNN) -- What has Jay Leno done lately for NBC in late night?

Well, even the network's official Wednesday announcement of his ouster (in spring 2014) acknowledges that "The Tonight Show" under Leno's reign continues to rank No. 1 in both total viewers and advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds. That's against ABC's recently relocated "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" as well as CBS' longstanding "Late Show with David Letterman," according to Nielsen Media Research.

Nonetheless, NBC will be pushing him out for a second time, with "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon taking over "in conjunction" with the network's coverage of next year's Winter Olympic Games from Sochi, Russia (scheduled to run from February 7-23).

Ed Bark
Ed Bark

NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke says in a statement that "we are purposefully making this change when Jay is No. 1, just as Jay replaced Johnny Carson (in 1992) when he was No. 1. Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent and this is his time."

Carson retired under his own power, though, surprising NBC in the process. Leno is unwillingly walking the plank, as he's made clear in recent monologues with barbed jokes at NBC's expense.

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But if this indeed is Fallon's time, it may be in large part because we live in very different times. The Internet-driven "social media" didn't exist during Carson's storied 30-year reign. He simply had to deliver a conventional TV audience. He did so year after year against a variety of competitors in a much less crowded late-night field.

Fallon averages 1.7 million viewers compared to 3.5 million viewers for Leno, according to the NBC release. He also draws fewer 18-to-49-year-olds, although a later time slot certainly is a factor in both cases.

But Fallon, as well as Kimmel and TBS' late night standard-bearer, Conan O'Brien, all excel in a social media arena that remains of little if any interest to either Leno or Letterman. Networks increasingly see this as a key ingredient in times when conventional TV ratings continue to sag amid myriad channel choices.

Why is NBC dumping Jay Leno?
Hear Leno, Fallon belt out duet
Why is NBC dumping Jay Leno?
Conan: Fallon will do great on 'Tonight'

Let's look at their respective number of Twitter followers. As of this writing, Fallon's personal page has 8.33 million and O'Brien is right behind with 8.09 million. Kimmel weighs in with 2.42 million followers, meaning he still has some work to do on this front.

But Leno, via the official Tonight Show site, has just 525,000 followers. And Letterman's Late Show page has 234,000 followers. The host doesn't have a personal Twitter page, although some are tweeting in his name and using his picture, according to a Late Show representative.

Fallon and Kimmel also boast a number of "viral videos" with star supporting players ranging from first lady Michelle Obama to actor Ben Affleck. Fallon's recent "Evolution of Mom Dancing" performance with Obama became an immediate YouTube sensation that to date has more than 15 million views.

In announcing Fallon's promotion, NBC noted that his show "has continued to garner attention for its viral videos," with the host also winning an Emmy in the "Interactive Media Category" after being named 2009's "Webby Person of the Year."

This week's TBS press release on extending "Conan" through November 2015 touches only briefly on O'Brien's conventional Nielsen ratings performance among young adults. But the network says a mouthful about his social media prowess. It bears repeating because it's so illustrative of the value networks place on out-of-the-box moxie.

O'Brien's show "leads the late-night crowd when it comes to online activity and engagement," says TBS, "with the show and its host drawing more than 8.3 million followers on Twitter, 2 million fans on Facebook, 2 million unique users each month on TeamCoco.com and 15 million video views each month on TeamCoco.com and YouTube." Not only that, but the Team Coco app won the 2012 Emmy for "Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media Enhancement."

The great unknown, at least from a financial standpoint, is whether all these accolades and millions of off-network fans will lead to appreciable sums of money in the bank.

We'll likely never know with Leno and Letterman, though. Their skill sets basically begin and end with putting on a show each night. In the now vast multimedia universe, that may be akin to sending a message via telegraph instead of e-mail.

After all, these really aren't just the late-night wars anymore. They're the anytime, anywhere wars, with Fallon, Kimmel and O'Brien arming themselves to the hilt.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Bark.

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