What TV news can learn from Jimmy Fallon

…or, how the internet picked the new Tonight Show host

Fallon getting tucked in by Danny, Jesse and Joey from Full House. That small black box says Fallon’s show had 2M YouTube subscribers.

We cut cable years ago, with the idea that would make us watch less TV. Instead, I’ve become expert at finding the shows I like streaming online.

It’s free and legal which is great, but the user experience ranges from meh to terrible.

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was an exception. The show’s team was masterful at making it easy to watch and share their videos. The New York Times has written about Fallon’s internet success, his millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but noted: “it is unclear whether the videos provide a net gain by building awareness of shows, or a new loss, because viewers know they can see what they like online.”

But I don’t think he’d be moving up to The Tonight Show without it.

For example, I was a fan and never stayed up until 12:35 a.m. to watch. Fallon himself poked fun at his time slot in a recent sketch with the guys from Full House; Bob Saget as Danny Tanner told him no one was still awake at 12:37. Remarkably, even the show’s main landing page didn’t mention when it aired. Online, it didn’t matter.

Lessons for news?

We know that audiences are increasingly going online for news, and while TV is still the dominant news source (according to U.S. data from the the Pew Research Center) audiences have been shrinking. “TV” news—which I increasingly think of video storytelling, delivered however—is/will be looking to capture the eyeballs of cable-cutters like me.

I’m not suggesting newsrooms set their sights on the kind of viral videos that have gotten Fallon so much attention and attracted the likes of Springsteen, McCartney and show regular Justin Timberlake.

However, the LNJF team also put in the work to build a loyal audience beyond those hits, by making it easy to watch and keep watching content from every program.

The Poynter Institute is now offering a course called “How User Experience (UX) Will Save Journalism.” Salvation is up for debate, but as a user (not a UX expert) I do think there’s something the rest of us can learn from Jimmy Fallon’s team about what they did right online.

1. It works, even on mobile

Video was easy to find on the show site, and available on YouTube.

It’s remarkable how many sites offer streaming shows that stutter, stop, or won’t play on mobile without an app. One broadcaster’s website plops the commercials outside of commercial breaks, interrupting programming mid-sentence.

This shouldn’t need saying, but if you offer video it has to work. When it doesn’t, I’m left wondering whether anyone at the station has ever tried to watch their own product.

The LNJF site did have a few access issues. Show segments were viewable in Canada but full episodes were not, and on mobile (in Canada) you had to watch the YouTube version. But still, that was an option and it worked.

2. All or something

“Thank you, pita bread, for being a great combination between wheat and envelopes.”

Sometimes I like to watch the full program, sometimes I’m hunting for smaller, specific items. The Late Night website offered both, and organized the videos not just by most recent but into types (monologues, interviews, etc.) and let you sort by most popular.

If all you want is “Thank You Notes,” a weekly feature where Fallon writes notes to random objects and people, you can watch heaps of that.

For a newscast, the equivalent would be letting the viewer click on just the sportscast, and all the sportscasts from the past week. Or, all the stories from a reporter with a specific beat.

Admittedly, viewership on many of those videos might not be huge. But the benefit I’d see is letting the user get to know your content and people—in the same way that binge-watching a show on Netflix can get you hooked much faster than stumbling on it (or not) each week.

3. They keep you watching

The show site and YouTube both suggested related videos to play next.

It’s fun to watch those small bits that are exactly what you want. But, at the risk of sounding lazy, it’s not fun to keep making decisions every 2-4 minutes when the video ends.

Solution: a video player that suggests or even auto-loads the next video. The LNJF website offered that, and so did the show’s YouTube channel, which boasted more than two million subscribers.

It worked better at some times than others. For a while, (a corporate edict perhaps?) each Fallon clip led to an auto-play of other NBC content like The Voice. No thanks.

An auto-play or next-up feature has to suggest something the user actually wants or it will be an annoying impediment to staying on your site. When it worked well, a monologue would lead to more monologues; the first half of a guest interview led to the second half.

The site gets more eyeballs on the ads that play before each clip, and I get to keep watching things I like.

4. He’s positive

Even controversial pop figures were treated warmly. Post-twerking controversy, Fallon had Miley Cyrus on to record a fun and surprisingly good a cappella version of her hit “We Can’t Stop” with the Roots. More than 16 million YouTube views.

I should probably stop there with the lessons about usability, but I wonder whether the news could also learn something from Fallon’s positive attitude—acknowledging that a comedian has a very different job to do than a journalist.

Fallon’s humour is smart but rarely mean, and that’s part of his success. In a GQ feature last year that predicted his Tonight Show rise, Fallon talked about how the audience is in on the joke, and that matters.

“I just feel like people like a little break,” he says. “Especially at 12:37 at night, you go like, ‘I’m just tired of the snarky right now. I just want to lie down and have somebody make me laugh for an hour. Entertain me and then I’m going to sleep with a smile on my face.’ That’s my job, that’s what I do.”

Obviously, a comedy-variety show has a different mandate than news. Fallon can be a fan of everybody; we need tough interviews and accountability.

But I suspect news viewers also tire: of conflict, and a smarter-than-thou stance that finds more villains than heroes. To me, the clearest example that people are hungry for some good news is this story about a B.C. motorcycle rider who stopped to help a woman whose wheelchair was stuck on the sidewalk. That’s a kind thing to do, but not that extraordinary (or it shouldn’t be). Still, the story made headlines on websites around the world. The success of sites like Upworthy—as annoying as it might be—is a further clue that positivity plays well online.

So, when it’s appropriate for the story, I wonder if we could have a little more fun, delight or even warmth in our news coverage. Here’s one entertaining example from my colleague Chris Brown, about a study on personal space.

It’s well worth a watch, but head to your desktop; I can’t get the video to play on my phone.

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