“They have to plan for the future, but in order to do that they have to sacrifice the one thing that they have in place, which is a stable audience of older viewers,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.
The network needs to prepare for competition against younger hosts such as Mr. Kimmel, but in order to do that they will risk alienating an audience, he says, “that doesn’t care about social media and couldn’t care less about viral videos.”
Fallon is largely unknown to the older demographic that is the bulk of Leno’s audience base, agrees David Bartlett of Levick, a crisis management and strategic planning firm in Washington. “But that younger audience will be around a lot longer.”
Some question the wisdom of such a long transition period. In the Hollywood Reporter article, NBC's Mr. Burke suggested that the network wanted to leverage promotion for Fallon with its coverage of the Winter Olympic Games from Sochi, Russia, next February. But that could backfire.
“NBC executive elites are now giving Leno a year notice to embarrass that company every night,” says Doug Spero, associate professor of mass communications at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., via e-mail. Leno “is going to bash them for a year until he leaves, and he may not even make it the full year because it will get ugly.”