When Johnny Carson retired viewers were for the first time presented with an option in late night Television. They had the new Tonight Show host in Jay Leno, or the former host of Late Night, David Letterman with his Late Show on CBS. That idea that there was competition in the late night landscape was a foreign concept, as prior to that point, late night viewers were predominantly focused on The Tonight Show for a laugh before bed.
This Leno vs. Letterman debate garnered a lot of ink in ensuring years. Of course, times have changed and with the debut of Jimmy Fallon's version of the Tonight Show, the late night options are plentiful; from Letterman, to his prodigy in Kimmel, and the emergence of options on cable including Conan, Stewart, and Colbert. Perhaps, in today's media over-loaded environment it's only fitting that we also have a plethora of options for our late night entertainment.
Not only are each of these shows vying for viewers in their time slot, but for the eyes of social media users as well. It's a whole new layer of complexity that goes into programming each night's show, and it should make for some interesting competition in the years to come. To that end, Fallon got off to a pretty good start himself with his latest video to go viral "The Evolution of Hip Hop Dance."
However, the question that we're faced with now, as viewership changes and morphs, how will we define success of these late night programs? Will the focus still be on traditional viewership numbers, or will the definition of success evolve with the times and include social media reach as well? The networks want younger audiences, and yet younger audiences have entirely different consumption patterns and approaches to how they view their media. I think the answer will ultimately become a hybrid and perhaps be somewhat reminiscent of Mr. Letterman who never won in terms of viewers versus Leno, but was a part of the cultural zeitgeist with his Top 10 lists that permitted our culture. With that in mind, I would argue that tomorrow's "winning" late night hosts will find a way to both garner a respectable audience in the late evening and continue to drive the cultural conversation forward with segments that live on (and on and on) via social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook.