LOS ANGELES (Variety) – “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” fans may have noticed that house band The Roots have a lot less to perform at the start of the nightly program now. The NBC late-night show quietly dropped its opening credits a few months ago, squeezing the cold open down to a quick intro from announcer Steve Higgins, a few “hey-hey-hey-hey” bars from The Roots, and then straight into Fallon’s monologue.
The decision to drop the opener is the most notable change made so far on “The Tonight Show” since former “Today” executive producer Jim Bell took over as showrunner in October. Fallon told Variety that the idea for excising the opener was inspired by Netflix’s “skip intro” feature, which allows viewers to bypass a series episode’s opening credits and get straight into the action.
But it’s also clearly a bid to hold on to more viewers from its local news lead-in as the late-night ratings wars once again heat up. For the 2018-2019 TV season, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” held a commanding lead in total viewers, with 3.82 million (to “The Tonight Show’s” 2.44 million). Both shows are tied in adults 18-49 (0.5 rating). “Late Show” holds a narrow lead over “Tonight” in adults 25-54 (0.8 vs. 0.7), which is also the news demo — so perhaps NBC believes any extra viewers that anything they can gain in transition from local news helps.
“The Tonight Show’s” original opening sequence, directed by Spike Lee, featured Fallon and various New York landmarks, and had been a part of Fallon’s “Tonight” show since its 2014 launch.
“You don’t have [the ‘skip intro’ button] on network TV,” Fallon said. “So you’re forced to watch this, every night. And you go, ‘I get it, ’s going to walk out. We get it, you’re in New York City and you’re ordering a hot dog.”
The idea, he said, is simple: “Get to the funny, get to the comedy. [Viewers are] going to tune in at 11:35 and want to see you be funny. ‘Gimme the jokes, what’s happening in the world. Gimme the headlines. What is the president doing? What’s the new pop culture thing people are talking about? Show me a viral video and let’s go! Entertain me, I’m tired. I worked all day! I don’t need to see you walking through New York! I get it!’”
Sacrificed in the change, however, is that catchy “Tonight Show” theme song, which the Roots and Fallon revealed during a 2017 panel at the Paley Center was created out of bumper music the band wrote when they first joined “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” in 2009. Fallon picked that tune out of several choices to become his signature “Tonight Show” theme.
“Literally, the first song we wrote ended up being the ‘Tonight Show’ theme, the ‘Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey’ song, which is weird because when you approached us about coming up with a new ‘Tonight Show’ theme, we did about 20 other compositions,” The Roots’ Questlove told Fallon on the panel.
The intro also included a moment where Questlove would shout the episode number of that night’s “Tonight Show.”
The new protocol also means the night’s guests aren’t immediately announced, until Fallon brings them up later in the monologue.
Soon after the change, one fan started a petition on Change.org to “bring the old ‘Tonight Show’ intro back.” Only 43 people have signed on so far, although a viewer who did admitted that she misses “the old vibes the old intro had.”
One observer noted that the decision to scrap the intro in order to seamlessly move from late local news into Fallon’s monologue is straight out of the NBC playbook. The Peacock network famously launched its internal “NBC 2000” initiative in the late 1990s to cut down opening theme songs, shrink end credits and immediately transition from one show to the next without commercial breaks. The goal was to keep audiences from flipping channels.
“They have an entire department at NBC that goes, ‘what can we do to grab people before they change the channel?” the insider said. “‘What are some possible off ramps for the lead-in audience, and boy if we could just hook them right away from the local news then perhaps we save a tenth of a ratings point.’ That strikes me that that’s what that is.”
Local news remains a solid lead-in for late night shows, and in most top markets, the NBC-owned stations outperform CBS-owned stations in late news, presumably giving “Tonight Show” a bit of an advantage. (ABC stations lead in the top markets.)
Fallon said the change remains an experiment. “We’re trying it, we’re always up for trying new things and we always love any new ideas,” he said. “There are always ways to change things and grow in the right direction and see.”
And indeed, it’s nothing new for late night shows to experiment with changing up the form. NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” eventually began opening its episodes with Meyers sitting at his desk, ready to riff on headlines — rather than the stand up, in front of a curtain, preferred by most hosts. Colbert embraced more political humor, while Conan O’Brien just completely retooled his show, as it went from an hour to half-hour.