Jimmy Fallon’s Mishaps Magnified in Late-Night TV Fishbowl

Analysis: NBCU has a lot riding on the latenight host's shoulders

A chipped tooth won’t derail NBC’s vaunted “Tonight Show,” but it has created plenty of chatter among people obsessed with the inner workings of late-night TV.

Since taking over “Tonight” in February 2014, Jimmy Fallon has proven himself to be dynamic, creative, hard-charging and largely impossible to defeat in the ratings. He has brought new energy to one of TV’s most durable formats by getting guests to play games, take part in skits and show off hidden talents. But he has also demonstrated a different quality: He’s prone to accidents.

Fallon late last week disclosed via Twitter and Instagram that he had inadvertently chipped a tooth trying to open a tube of medication for his finger. That finger was nearly lost in June when Fallon took a tumble at home and snagged the digit thanks to a ring getting caught on a piece of furniture, requiring emergency surgery. Despite the injuries, Fallon has so far only missed a single Friday night episode of “Tonight” (his show was already scheduled to go into repeats when he injured his finger). NBC declined to comment.

These incidents aren’t the first in which Fallon has been the victim of self-injury. In 2013, while hosting NBC’s “Late Night,” the host revealed that he cut the top portion of one of his fingers while making salsa at home.

The spotlight in recent weeks on Fallon’s mishaps illuminates just how social media has become a more integral part of how late-night series succeed and how fans forge a relationship with the hosts. Jay Leno and David Letterman focused more squarely on their respective TV programs, but the new coterie of latenight personalities must also concern themselves with building ties to fans via other venues, like YouTube and Twitter. Had Fallon not released a photo via social media last week showing himself in a dentist’s chair, the world might never have known about it, and it would not have refreshed thoughts about the accident involving his finger.

Fallon has become strategically critical to NBC parent NBCUniversal, and is its lead jouster in the increasingly contentious late-night wars. With David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Chelsea Handler, Craig Ferguson and Jay Leno all stepping down within the last two years, there is or will be a new-ish face behind the desk of nearly every mainstay latenight program by the end of September. CBS will press hard against “Tonight” when it introduces Stephen Colbert as the new host of “The Late Show” next month. Elsewhere on the set-top box, Comedy Central will introduce Trevor Noah later in September as host of its “Daily Show.”

Late-night TV was perhaps the one bright spot in a decidedly lackluster TV upfront market this year. As the broadcast networks hawked ad time for the coming season, late-night was one of the few places where demand increased and, as a result, pricing rates rose more than they did for primetime. NBC sought to get CPM hikes of 10% to 15% in latenight because of Fallon’s success. In contrast, the biggest increase NBC got for its primetime schedule was 5%, according to ad buyers and other people familiar with the talks.

To be certain, Fallon and NBC are tied up in a solid partnership. The network recently signed him to a six-year contract extension that will keep him on “Tonight” into 2021.

And the two sides are likely to expand their activity. NBCUniversal in March said it planned to unveil a subscription-based streaming-video comedy service by the end of the year, and shows like Fallon’s “Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live” are expected to play some part in the offering. NBC is eager to monetize the digital viewing that takes place around “Tonight” due to the success Fallon and his staffers have in getting segments of the program to go viral.

“Here you have one of the hottest shows on television where 70% of the views are in an area that we don’t get credit for it,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke in February about “Tonight Show” digital viewing. “That’s not going last forever.”

Beyond late-night, Fallon has already displayed a knack for developing winning TV concepts: A show based on his lip-sync song competition with celebrities, “Lip Sync Battle,” has become a hit for Viacom’s Spike cable network.

Many latenight viewers thrill to the genre’s crazy skits and celebrity chatter, but putting the shows on is hard work – for the hosts and the staff behind them. In a long-gone era, a host might tap a number of substitutes to fill in once in a while. Johnny Carson relied on Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling and Jay Leno, among others, to fill his desk while he took a vacation.

But Carson’s latenight was very different from today’s. He dominated the timeslot, meaning he had the ability to take time off without looking over his shoulder. The late-evening hosts of 2015 don’t enjoy such a luxury. To take time off the air is to cede attention to someone else. David Letterman experimented with guest hosts on Fridays in June of 2003 – Fallon was one of them – and found the ratings did not work in his favor. Guest hosts also filled in for Letterman while he recovered from heart surgery in 2000 and from shingles in 2003.

Fallon has already hooked viewers with his winning persona, but in an environment this competitive, he and NBCU probably can’t afford many more accidents.

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