Saturday, January 18, 2014

CBS, NBC and the new late-night eyeball war

STORM CLOUDS have been gathering for months. We’ve known this was coming, the usual hostilities of competitor networks to be inflamed by bold actions taken late in the evening. On Feb. 17, a latent conflict begins again. After a long lull, the War for Broadcast Late-Night Eyeballs is about to recommence. With the departure of Jay Leno later this month, Jimmy Fallon is set to take the reins of “The Tonight Show,” moving the legendary late-night staple back to New York as the show’s youngest host since Johnny Carson.

In that one swift stroke, Fallon and NBC put CBS and its late-night comedy institution, David Letterman, on notice, telling them: There’s a new sheriff in town, one whose multiple talents, creative energy and demographic reach add up to a reinvigoration of the “Tonight” brand, and a serious challenge to Letterman’s more static antics.

What’s taking shape at the “Tonight Show” may be part of a real generational shift at NBC, which has hinted at other changes elsewhere in its schedule. But in the short term, late-night appears to be the arena for showcasing that change.

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Letterman knows what’s coming. On his Thursday taping of “The Late Show With David Letterman,” he sat with Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor and frequent “Late Show” guest. The two discussed the goings-on at their mutual networks, but Letterman never missed the chance to stick the knife in, with infantilizing asides about “Little Jimmy Fallon.”

Letterman would be wise not to underestimate his opponent. In its five seasons, “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” has grown to consistently outpoint its rivals in the space and to win Emmy nominations for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series every year since 2010. Fallon, simply put, is an overachiever’s overachiever.

A veteran of “Saturday Night Live,” Fallon’s been an actor, he heads a production company, he sings, does wicked impersonations, plays piano, plays guitar (the recent performance with Bruce Springsteen a great example) and is altogether a more kinetic television presence than Letterman has been in years.

And it’s more than just physical. Letterman’s interview style, at times sour and cynical, can veer from the sporadically prosecutorial to the passive-aggressive conspiratorial (as though the guest is the object of a joke that only he and the audience are in on). Fallon engages his guests with an unbridled enthusiasm for them and what they’re doing. He never forgets to be the comedian he is, but in his style of inquiry, there’s a sense of celebration, and a visible evidence of empathy. Snark-free, non-ironic empathy. Imagine that.

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NBC’S SHIFT of late-night resources goes deeper in the bench. With Fallon’s ascension to “Tonight,” his old “Late Night” perch will be taken over on Feb. 24 by Seth Meyers, late of the Weekend Update desk at “SNL.” Meyers inherits a “Late Night” audience whose ratings (courtesy of Fallon) top those of its counterpart, “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” on CBS.

Whether Meyers can maintain that lead is an open question. His comedic credentials are in order — he can be as good an impersonator as Fallon — and he knows his way around the format, having been head writer for “SNL” (Tina Fey credited him with writing the sketches that skewered Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign).

But on more than one occasion, his timing on “Weekend Update” sketches revealed a comic falling in love with his own material, someone willing to wait for a laugh, and wait and wait, extracting audience responses that the material didn’t always deserve. We’ll see if his chops, and his flow, are in full effect next month.

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Other changes are coming elsewhere in the Peacock lineup. Tonight, Sasheer Zamata makes her debut on “Saturday Night Live,” becoming the show's first black woman castmember since 2007. The long-running NBC comedy staple has also hired two black women writers, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, the show's first in more than 20 years.

More? On Jan. 13, Stephen Battaglio of TV Guide reported that Tamron Hall, a fixture of NBC kissing-cousin network MSNBC, “is serious talks with NBC News” to join the “Today” show as a co-host. “People familiar with the discussions tell TV Guide Magazine that Hall will be added to the current line-up of Natalie Morales, Al Roker and Willie Geist,” Battaglio reports.

Further down in the story is something even more provocative: Battaglio reports that Hall, who’s been at NBC since 2007, “has met with at least one other competing network news division in recent months. A spokeswoman for NBC News declined comment.”

Interesting — if you remember Hall’s recent pre-Christmas stint as a fill-in host of the “NBC Nightly News,” in a position she looked very comfortable in. Oh, Brian Williams isn’t going anywhere; neither, for that matter, is Lester Holt, who helms the “Nightly News” on weekends. But NBC’s nod to Hall’s trial run in The Big Chair speaks volumes about a willingness to put its capable people in unexpected places, to jostle our expectations — to shake things up, at least temporarily.

They’ll do it more permanently tonight, and again on the night of Feb. 17.

Image credits: All images © NBC and NBC News.

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