Why Late Night Is Over (And Is Never Going Away)
Everyone loves Jon Stewart, recent recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Fancy! But all that love isn’t translating to ratings for his new Apple TV+ show, The Problem with Jon Stewart. The problem with The Problem is that ratings dropped nearly 80% from the show’s first episode to its fifth.
It’s been a minute since a successful late night show was launched -- Seth Meyers (2014) and James Corden (2015) were the last to get off the ground without quick cancelation. And it’s not like networks and streamers alike haven’t tried. What’s the problem?
For one, there are just a “tremendous number of shows,” says Bill Carter, CNN media analyst and author of The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. He recently talked about late night’s troubles on Matt Belloni’s The Town podcast.
The glut is Problem #1. Carson had late night all to himself for a couple of decades. Then it was only Johnny and David Letterman. If there were only two late-night shows competing today, argues Carter, they’d both be doing very well. But like all aspects of broadcast TV, the goal posts for what constitutes “success” have moved considerably. Yesterday’s canceled bomb would be today’s top hit.
Streaming is Problem #2. “Ultimately, it’s Netflix and HBO Max that are killing these shows because it’s the shifting viewership landscape,” says Belloni.
But streaming itself doesn’t lend itself to traditional late-night talk shows -- and it’s not like the streamers haven’t tried. Chelsea Handler, Joel McHale, Michelle Wolf, Hasan Minhaj, Norm MacDonald, and Sarah Silverman have all taken their shots on streaming services -- and not one has worked. In part, it’s because the way we watch a Netflix is “kind of antithetical” to the way we’ve watched late-night comedy shows, says Carter. Traditional monologues, based on that day’s news, are meant to be watched in real time. Who does that on Hulu?
All of that means late night, as Carter used to write about in his books about Carson, Letterman, and Leno, is essentially over, a relic of a bygone era. Johnny Carson used to be not only the biggest star in late night but in all of television. It’s hard to imagine that kind of success ever coming back.
So late night is dead. But, it’s important to note, late night is never going away. Huh?
Here are three reasons. First, late night has the advantage of airing on broadcast networks for multiple nights a week. That allows hosts like Fallon, Colbert, and Kimmel to establish a connection with viewers that’s virtually impossible on streaming.
At a time when networks are struggling to connect with audiences, late-night hosts are the de facto faces of the franchise. “A Jimmy Fallon is a spokesperson for the network,” says Belloni. “They’re in business with him on other shows. He’s the voice of the tram ride at Universal Studios.”
That’s why Jimmy Kimmel introduces all of ABC’s new shows to advertisers every year -- he’s the closest thing the network has to a brand.
Reason #2? Late night is killing it online. Instead of watching in real time, people are consuming the best bits of 60-minute shows in three-minute hunks the next day. “The numbers on YouTube are way bigger than what they’re generating in their time slot,” says Belloni.
The third reason late night is never going away? It’s cheap as hell. Which sounds crazy when you find out a Jimmy Fallon is making $16 million a year. (Kimmel and Colbert are reportedly right behind at $15 million.)
But for the money, you get 4-5 hours of programming every week. Imagine trying to fill those hours with a scripted original -- you’d burn through that Fallon money in a couple of weeks.
The kings of late night as we knew them are dead. Long live the kings of late night.
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Top image: CBS