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Talk Show Perspectives 9: How to Win (and Lose) a Talk Show Audience

What we can learn from Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and Piers Morgan


'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' Debut Episode

Jimmy Fallon

Theo Wargo/Getty Images Entertainment

What a busy month for late night talk shows.

The last three weeks of February saw the launch of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers, as well as the cancellation (or at least the announcement of the cancellation) of Piers Morgan Tonight.

Though all three events played out differently across the talk show landscape, they all had one thing in common - the audience’s perception of the host. In a lot of ways, that perception played out in how the media reported on the debut of Fallon and Meyers, as well as the mea culpa of Morgan and CNN.

Let’s start with Jimmy Fallon.

‘Tonight Show’ makes a giant splash
Fans of Fallon know that his Tonight Show is too far removed from Fallon’s Late Night. His sketches with Will Smith and Justin Timberlake were riffs on Late Night sketches. And Fallon didn’t stray far from what’s worked in the past, debuting his popular “Thank You Notes” segment during the first week. In fact, “Thank You Notes” was used as a top-of-the-show headliner and a promotional tool to attract audiences.

In other words, new set, new time slot, same show. You would think that would put off some critics and maybe bore audiences.

But the majority of early reviews were gushing. “If Jimmy Fallon had already proven he was a natural hosting NBC’s Late Night, he left no doubt Monday that The Tonight Show fits him like a glove,” said The Associated Press. The Hollywood Reporter referred to Fallon as “good-natured” and “never mean.” And USA Today said Fallon was “an easy-to-like” host “well-suited to Tonight.”

And Fallon’s Tonight audience? Well, it’s the biggest Tonight has seen since Johnny Carson retired in 1992. Yes, bigger than any audience Jay Leno’s No. 1 Tonight Show ever pulled in.

Now compare that to Seth MeyersLate Night debut.

Mediocre response to Meyers
Meyers debuted his version of Late Night a week after Fallon’s Tonight. Smaller set, very intimate, but otherwise all the trappings of a traditional late night talk show with a host that isn’t that far removed from Fallon. Saturday Night Live alumni, former Weekend Update anchor, head writer, winning smile. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s some stuff, if you read any of Meyers’ reviews. “As for the show’s rough spots: unfortunately there were many,” read Screen Rant’s review.

"Though he lacked the giddy enthusiasm that marked Fallon's first Tonight outing, Meyers frequently acknowledged the show as a work in progress, noting that a monologue joke about UPS had bombed with the studio audience and making fun of his low-budget graphics," wrote the L.A. Times.

In other words, audiences and critics seemed non-plussed. Perhaps for good reason. This is Meyers first ride as a talk show host, so we can expect some skepticism. Will he be funny, will he be smart, will we be entertained? Audiences are cautious.

For good reason. Look at what happened to Piers Morgan.

Not for U.S.
Morgan and CNN’s Jeffrey Zucker announced that Morgan’s show, Piers Morgan Tonight would come to an end, likely March, citing low ratings. Stroll around the Internet a bit and you’ll learn more.

“Morgan’s failure to launch is a little like one of those classic British murder mysteries: there are far too many motives for viewers to have turned on Morgan to pick just one,” wrote James Poniewozik via Time’s “Tuned In” column.

Some of those reasons: Morgan’s overall Britishness, which never played well with American audiences. Oh, and his alleged penchant for talking down to guests and to his audience.

Step back from all three of these shows, analyze them for their component parts and you won’t find too much different. They all run the same under the hood (host, celebrity guest, interview, opinion or comedy bit, sign off).

So why does Fallon blast off like a rocket, while Meyers just gets off the ground and Morgan crashes and burns?

It’s all about relationships
It’s simple, really. Talk show success is all about the relationship between the host and the audience. If that bond is strong, ratings kinda don’t matter. If it’s weak - or in the case of Morgan’s viewership, apparently hostile - there’s trouble.

Steve Harvey isn’t blowing the lid off the ratings bucket, but he’s built a rapport with his audience and a solid foundation. He’ll be around for a while. Rosie O’Donnell has turned off enough casual viewers that she couldn’t launch a new talk show on OWN.

Fallon has an energy and charisma we haven’t seen in many years. It’s something Carson carried with him, nearly to the end of his show. It’s something Letterman had early on and has evolved into a comfortable, snarky warmth. Audiences trust him.

Like we said before, Meyers is still an unknown. Hey, he’s friends with Fallon and comes from the same school, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. But we won’t love him right from the start. He needs to earn the kind of trust Fallon has.

Morgan lost that trust, if he ever had it to begin with. Audiences weren’t sure what to expect from him. And they often weren’t comfortable with the outcome.

Lose that trust, hurt that relationship and it’s all over.

Yep. As simple as that.

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