NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the wee hours next Tuesday morning, late-night TV viewers will get their first glimpse of comedian Jimmy Fallon as the host of NBC's "Late Night." And shortly afterward, potential viewers around the nation could encounter parts of a barrage of promotional efforts NBC has at the ready to help it maintain dominance in the time period -- even as it changes the personalities who have helped it achieve that status.
The buildup to Mr. Fallon's debut next week has been muted, and deliberately so. For weeks, the comedian's team has been posting "bits" from warm-up shows online, and running promos that allow would-be viewers to sample his commentary and routines in places ranging from taxicabs to planes, said Adam Stotsky, president-marketing, NBC Entertainment.
"It's not about displaying billboards up and down Madison Avenue or Times Square," Mr. Stotsky said. "This is really about having Jimmy's audience base bubble up, vs. having a top-down hammer."
Launching Mr. Fallon's show successfully is critical for NBC. Late night "is part of our legacy as a network," said John Miller, chief marketing officer, NBC Universal TV Group and president-NBC Agency. It's also creeping into NBC's prime-time schedule. The network raised eyebrows late last year when it announced Jay Leno, current occupant of the "Tonight Show" chair, would move to a five-days-a-week show at 10 p.m., with Conan O'Brien moving to his roost from "Late Night." That means NBC has to manage four hours of late-evening and late-night talk (don't forget Carson Daly's "Last Call"), and keep audiences flowing from prime time into local news and then on past midnight, as it plays musical chairs with familiar hosts.
Just the first step
Generating interest for Mr. Fallon is just the first step in what Messrs. Miller and Stotsky said would be a rolling effort to promote all three talk shows between the launch of Mr. Fallon's program and the start of Mr. Leno's new show later in the year.
Because Mr. Fallon's time slot is well-known for attracting younger viewers and college students, several promotions for the revamped "Late Night" will quietly aim at that crowd. The network has already set up "profiles" for Mr. Fallon on 25 social-networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, Mr. Stotsky said. Promotions will "position him as a guy you want to hang out with," Mr. Stotsky said. NBC will partner with local radio stations to have people congregate at bars to see if Mr. Fallon will buy them a round of drinks at 12:35 a.m. Another promotion will have Mr. Fallon create songs tailored for audiences at specific colleges and universities, which will then be passed along in viral fashion.
"We're allowing people to discover Jimmy on their own terms, not making any sorts of wild claims or promises, much like [NBC did with Mr. O'Brien]," Mr. Stotsky said. "This is not a sprint right out of the gate. This is absolutely a marathon."
With so many changes, it's no surprise there are some questions about NBC's late-night strategy. Mr. Leno's program is expected to generate lower ratings than the typical 10 p.m. network drama, meaning there could be a significantly smaller audience to feed to local news and Messrs. O'Brien and Fallon. It's also not immediately clear that Mr. O'Brien's humor will be as good a fit at 11:35 p.m. Media buyers say they welcome Mr. Leno's new prime-time talk show as means of latching on to a program that will be original for most of the year and be tied more to events of the day than the typical comedy or drama.
Establishing a comedy beachhead
Despite the show switches and the complexities they raise, NBC sees a chance to establish a comedy beachhead of sorts, Mr. Miller said. The shows will offer a "real sense of topicality and immediacy that we think will become a hallmark for NBC," he said.
The network has ratings on its side. As of Feb. 15, Mr. Leno's "Tonight" program had reached about 4.98 million live-plus-same-day viewers this season, compared with 3.88 million for David Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS. Likewise, Mr. O'Brien's "Late Night" has reached about 1.95 million, compared with about 1.89 million for Craig Ferguson's "Late Late Show" on CBS and about 1.74 million for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on ABC, which starts at about 12:05 a.m.
Even so, NBC sees a long-term push ahead to promote Mr. Fallon's show. "Unlike a prime-time show that has to make a fast start in one week, this one is going to be around for a while, and we take a little more time with it and some longer-term strategies," Mr. Miller said.