While Conan O’Brien was jogging his farewell victory lap last week, turning up all over TV and in print as he heads off to “The Tonight Show,” his “Late Night” successor Jimmy Fallon was Twittering. And video blogging. And answering fans’ video-submitted questions.
Fallon, whose NBC show debuts Monday, also took to his website to announce some of his first guests: Robert DeNiro and Van Morrison are scheduled for the initial show. Then there’s Tina Fey, Cameron Diaz, Kevin and Alex…
Kevin and Alex?
For those in the know, no last names are necessary to introduce Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht, the hosts of Diggnation, the Internet TV show that features the duo sitting on a sofa, laptops open, riffing on videos and other content submitted and voted on by digg.com users.
“We’re [also] gonna get video game designers and stuff like that on the show,” Fallon promised during one of his video blogs last week.
Fallon’s been working the Web angle hard since early December, trying to build a social network around his show and generate some publicity. But will a nascent Internet following translate into big TV viewership?
It’s a question whose answer not only has implications for Fallon’s success, but for the future of television, which is struggling to keep viewers – especially young ones – in the Internet age.
The 34-year-old Fallon, whose boyish looks and fanboy interests bode well to help him attract the college crowd that buoyed David Letterman and O’Brien in previous generations, is embarking on a bold experiment in audience building.
Fallon appears to get the interactive world. In response to one fan’s video-submitted question last week about whether audience-generated content will be part of the show, Fallon said he was looking for a way for folks to contribute via Twitter during the 5:30 p.m. weekday taping. On Tuesday, his site launched a search for fans who could take part in webchats on the air.
At first glance, the show looks to follows the time-tested late-night formula: an opening monologue, a kickin’ house band (The Roots, in this case), and celebrity guests. But the big difference could come in the form Fallon gets viewers involved in the show – probably in ways Johnny Carson never dreamed of when he mined unscripted forays into the studio audience into comedy gold, or Letterman, when he solicited stupid pet and human tricks.
So will Fallon’s attempt to use the Web to boost TV viewership, which is being tried with varying success by others, work? Success will hinge not only on the degree of interactivity he offers, but on something far more basic: whether the likable former “SNL” star is up to the tall order of being funny night after night.
The answer, perhaps, will come in 2025 or so, when Kevin and Alex return to the sofa to reminisce with Fallon as he heads off to replace O’Brien on "The Tonight Show.”
If there still is a “Tonight Show.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.