The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon was once the late night TV show to beat in the ratings, but recent years have seen it face some significant challenges, with the latest being the departure of showrunner Jim Bell. While the initial news was fairly cut-and-dry, there were questions about why he was leaving earlier than anticipated, and now there are allegedly some larger reasons for the premature departure. Here's what's happening.
Jim Bell worked as showrunner of The Tonight Show for just one of his 28 years at NBC, with some of his more prominent work involving Today and NBC's Olympics coverage. Bell reportedly clashed with Saturday Night Live boss and The Tonight Show executive producer Lorne Michaels over the belief that The Tonight Show is "stuck in the past," according to Page Six, and not overhauling itself to keep up with CBS' The Late Show, hosted by Stephen Colbert. Furthermore, some of The Tonight Show writers allegedly weren't on the same page with Jim Bell.
In a statement from Jim Bell (via Deadline), he referred to his year at The Tonight Show as "terrific" and an opportunity he was "grateful for," expressing a desire "to delve into something new" and "broaden and deepen" his role in the content universe. Basically, if there was some tension that led to Bell deciding to leave The Tonight Show ahead of schedule (as he was originally believed to leave in early 2020), Bell isn't publicly addressing it.
There's no denying that The Tonight Show has seriously sunk in ratings and viewership in recent years, contrasted with The Late Show (with its heavy focus on political humor in the era of the Donald Trump presidency) and its massive rise. Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has expressed that he's not frustrated by late night TV's focus on Trump and political humor, although he did share that he "was devastated" by the viewer response to his fairly softball interview with Trump himself ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert on CBS' The Late Show continues to rise, and even ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! is ahead of The Tonight Show on average in the viewership for the current season. As of the week of October 28-November 1, 2019, TV By The Numbers reports The Late Show with Stephen Colbert easily on top in average viewership in the key 18-49 age demographic, with 3.44 million, as opposed to Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s 1.93 million and The Tonight Show's 1.92 million average.
As for the ratings, The Tonight Show with an average of 0.42 does remain on top of Jimmy Kimmel with its 0.34, though still behind The Late Show with 0.43. Whether or not Jim Bell was a driving force for an overhaul at The Tonight Show, the numbers do suggest that something needs to change if Jimmy Fallon's show is to catch up with Stephen Colbert's.
Only time will tell if The Tonight Show will look different following the departure of Jim Bell. Former The Tonight Show producer Gavin Purcell is stepping in as interim showrunner. You can catch new episodes of NBC's flagship late night series airing weeknights at 11:35 p.m. ET.