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'The Tonight Show' with Jimmy Fallon makes its debut tonight

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The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon makes its debut tonight (February 17, 2014) at midnight on NBC. While the show will start 30 minutes later than normal because of Olympic coverage, Fallon is betting on his big guests including Will Smith and music from U2 to help draw in a viewership curious to see what direction Fallon will take the venerable late night talks show.

Handing the “The Tonight Show” to Mr. Fallon is a bold move by NBC. Under Jay Leno the show was consistently the top rated late night program in a very crowded field. Even after the debacle of moving Jay to primetime and having Conan O’Brien take over the “Tonight Show” only to fire him a few months later and bring Jay back, the show has never faltered with Jay at the helm. NBC is banking on Fallon bringing his younger, hipper audience with him and potentially pulling some of the younger viewers away from Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and Stephen Colbert.

Fallon’s brand of high energy comedy, impersonations, and zany skits helped make his show at 12:30 a.m. a hit, but the questions remain as to whether or not that same brand of comedy will work an hour earlier when there is much more competition for those younger viewers.

Fallon told CNN that he intends to continue his style of doing more of a variety show than a straight up late night talk show. Over the years, many of Fallon’s musical numbers and skits have gone viral online and garnered millions of views. With his band The Roots in tow, Fallon plans to continue mining that territory.

Adding to the risk is moving the show back to New York. For years Jay often had the advantage over Letterman when it came to guests because many celebrities and movie stars will start a promotional cycle in Los Angeles. Jay would simply get them first. If Jay needed a last minute replacement guest there were many to choose from. New York has no shortage of celebrities, but for many it is just a stop on the promotional tour. Fallon may find himself falling behind the likes of Kimmel who still shoots in Los Angeles and competing with David Letterman for guests. Jimmy is certainly capable of doing a funny and entertaining show without big name guests, but many viewers tune in for the guests. If Fallon can’t continue to draw big names he may struggle with ratings.

If Fallon has one thing in his corner it is that there is no backup plan. During a “60 Minutes” interview Jay Leno said he would not come back to the “The Tonight Show” again if asked. NBC has cast their die with Jimmy Fallon and they seem ready to ride it out. That is great news for Fallon. It should give him time to settle into a rhythm and find a format that works for him and the audience. With no heir apparent waiting in the wings or backup plan in place, NBC will have to let Fallon try, and possibly fail, then get back up again. For better or worse, this is Fallon’s ship now.

Fallon is just the sixth host to be at the helm of “The Tonight Show” since 1954. Jay Leno and Johnny Carson account for 51 of those 60 years. Jimmy Fallon has big shoes to fill, but he seems ready for the challenge. Tune in tonight to see the all new "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon as it makes its debut on NBC.

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