11/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jimmy Fallon's Valued Online Audience Returns Little Value

As online video becomes more mainstream and ubiquitous, rebroadcasts of television programs are likewise increasing in popularity. Rather than identify online video as a rival - a source for original Web series drawing advertisers away from more traditional TV partiality - television executives and producers have instead jumped on board to go after the online audience they would have otherwise missed.

But this cross-venture offers more than just a channel to re-air what ran the night before. Some TV personalities have even begun to imagine, write, direct and market specifically for the Web audience. Adam Sternbergh correctly points out in his New York Magazine article that "Saturday Night Live" stumbled into the viral video business that can garner popularity on the Internet that the show cannot match on television alone. Sternbergh argues that this is one area where late-night host Jimmy Fallon has already surpassed his competition and superseded his predecessors as he stays tuned into the virtual world and what works there.

Today more than ever, for any late-night joke, sketch or unusual interview, the goal is longevity. Staying power is a determination of the masses, who, if their palates are satisfied, will recommend a link, image, or video to their network of friends or followers. If television is where Fallon's ideas are hatched, it's online where they grow.

In the past few months since Fallon debuted, he's led regular and occasional features targeting, among others, an online audience that doesn't stay up for Fallon. Producers know that if one of Fallon's darts hits the comedy bull's eye, it could take off the next day. These viewers can sleep securely knowing that they miss something that night it'll be waiting for them the next day, just a click away.

And that's the growing power of the Internet. What may have once been perceived as useless opinions of others on their blogs has blossomed into standard practice in the wisdom of crowds. When Jimmy Kimmel's "Matt Damon" video first aired, I slept through it. The following day, though, a dozen blogs I follow had the video on their sites. Not only does this save time, it brings with it a level of collective scrutiny that weeds out the weakest material on late-night television.

And there's a lot of failed attempts through which to screen. Fallon, however, seems untroubled by the fact that, despite some videos showing moderate success online, his accuracy remains shaky. For every video he makes that goes viral, there are several misses. Yet once that winning ticket shows itself, it can propel Fallon to the top of late-night clicks and conversation.

What worries me about this model is that it seems to tie success in late-night television with online chatter and clicks. For Fallon, the goal is to stay prominent in the late-night battle. For a still unproven host like Fallon, these videos grant him the chance to show off some skills. To some degree, even in his fourth month on the air, he's still auditioning in front of the American viewers. But like everyone who has a video circulate through e-mails and on YouTube, you have to wonder what that's actually worth.

NBC hopes that those who see Fallon light up the stage in one of these clips will eventually find their ways over to the network at midnight. Whether these video clips make people more inclined to watch the show - and for NBC to see the accompanying advertisements - is left to be seen. In my experience, liking a segment here and there does not translate into getting behind the whole, larger product. Whatever praise is thrown Fallon's way for embracing the online market must come along with skepticism about whether it's a recipe for long-term success or just a series of profitless gimmicks.

David Letterman, on the other hand, doesn't operate this way. He relies on his charisma and talent to carry him through interviews and other segments. It's what draws in his audience of millions of regular viewers. When you set aside viral vitality in favor of the funny, charming and unpredictable television that Letterman consistently provides, there's no comparison or worthy online substitute.