Jim Bell, one of TV’s best known news and sports producers, is joining NBC’s venerable “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as executive in charge at a time when the late-night mainstay is fighting for viewers with CBS rival “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Bell, who is known for his time overseeing “Today” and NBC’s Olympics productions, will serve as executive in charge and showrunner, effective immediately, NBC said in a statement Wednesday. His move to “Tonight” could give the program new expertise in live programming and newsy content at a time when late-night hosts have found success by emphasizing current events and the latest swirl of the national headlines.
Fallon’s program has long been able to maintain a critical distinction from the rest of the late-night pack, nabbing more viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 – the kind advertisers covet most. But in the early 2018-2019 TV season, the Colbert and Fallon programs have recently been neck and neck. Season to date as of Oct. 19, “Tonight” outmaneuvered “Late Show” in the category by a tenth of a percentage point, according to Nielsen. Like other late-night programs, “Tonight” has a robust following on YouTube and other social-media venues that is often not calculated in measures of linear TV viewing.
Success in the demographic has long been a benchmark scrutinized by NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. And “Tonight” is considered one of NBC’s flagship properties – something executives scrutinize and compare with the competition.
NBC appears to be taking a page from the CBS playbook. In the spring of 2016, after Colbert’s program had gotten off to a rocky start, CBS named Chris Licht, a TV-news veteran who helped start both MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and CBS News’ “CBS This Morning” as the “Late Show” showrunner. Since that time, Colbert’s program has featured often edgy humor based on the latest Trump headlines, and sought guests in the middle of the news storm including Anthony Scaramucci, former FBI director James Comey and any number of TV anchors including CNN’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
In recent months, a trio of producers have run “Tonight.” Bell joins after one of the team, Mike DiCenzo, stepped down. The other two producers, Katie Hockmeyer and Gerard Bradford, will remain as producers at the show.