Where We Stand in Unprecedented Late-Night TV Turnover

By Stacy Jenel Smith

January 6, 2015 4 min read

Never before has late-night television yielded such a string of memorable moments and headline news as in 2014 — and we are only midway through this unprecedented time of transition involving multiple hosts.

The Dec. 18 ending of "The Colbert Report" was the satirical show's highest-rated installment in history, watched by 2.5 million viewers (live and same day) as a veritable galaxy of luminaries including Jon Stewart, Bryan Cranston, George Lucas, Randy Newman and Cookie Monster sang out the show with their rendition of "We'll Meet Again."

December also brought us "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson's" finale, which drew that show's highest ratings in years.

David Letterman, whose retirement has now been set for May 20 of this year, staged his final whimsical holiday episode with Darlene Love and Jay Thomas. Fans may have gotten a little misty-eyed over the ending of such traditions as the quest to knock a giant meatball from atop a Christmas tree by throwing a football — but it wasn't enough to keep Jimmy Fallon from trouncing Dave in the ratings.

In fact, Fallon's "Tonight Show" saw a six-month high in its ratings the week of Dec. 15-19, beating the combined rating of Letterman on CBS and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Fallon's been beating the combined Letterman-Kimmel ratings quarterly as well.

Fallon, of course, is the late-night success story of the year just ended.

Jay Leno left "The Tonight Show" for good after 22 years as host on Feb. 6. It was another star-studded, memorable farewell, in which Leno's first and final guest, Billy Crystal, introduced a group of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett, Jack Black, Jim Parsons and Kim Kardashian to sing along to the tune of "So Long, Farewell" from "The Sound of Music." Some 14.637 million viewers tuned in live — the host's best numbers in five years.

Fallon premiered Feb. 17. Four months later, NBC executives were no doubt doing their a happy dance as Fallon's year-to-date comparison held strong — up 34 percent with adults 18-49 from Jay's show. Interestingly, the gains, in large part, did not come from losses in the competition. Rather than Letterman's or Kimmel's audiences leaving to tune in to Fallon's show, it was apparent that Fallon was bringing new viewers to the late-night scene, whether they tuned in live or same day or plus-seven.

The importance of popular clips being bandied about on social media grew exponentially. Anyone who has sat through a commercial waiting to see little kids being told mom and dad ate all their Halloween candy (thanks, Jimmy Kimmel. We shouldn't have laughed but we couldn't help ourselves) or followed the #awkwarddate tweet (a favorite of Jimmy Fallon's 13.3 million Twitter followers) doesn't have to wonder about that.

Another memorable moment on late night came when Chelsea Handler said goodbye to E! — and we said goodbye to TV's only female late night host — in August with her own star-studded farewell episode and a takeoff of "We Are the World."

On the later late-night scene, newly installed host Seth Meyers ruled over his competition last year. Whether that situation will change when James Corden premieres his new version of "The Late Late Show" March 9 remains to be seen. Will U.S. audiences take to the popular British personality who is taking over where Craig Ferguson left off?

The biggest drum roll is reserved for Stephen Colbert, who will be facing off against Fallon and Kimmel beginning in late August or early September. There's no doubt he will achieve a high tune-in, as vast swaths of the viewing public are dying to see how Colbert comes off as himself rather than his longtime alter ego.

Happy viewing, and thank goodness for DVR.

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