March 5, 2021

Television: Late-Night TV Shows Face a Difficult Future

“I was so psyched,” he said. And why not? There were tears of joy flowing not in his studio but in the aisles of his offices at NBC at the big news: His two-year-old show had grabbed one of the Emmy nominations for a variety, music or comedy series in the intense competition among the crowded field of late-night entries.

“It means so much for a show this young,” said his executive producer, Michael Shoemaker, who worked on “Saturday Night Live” before joining the Fallon show. “I’ve been in this category before. It’s a big deal to get in that club. It’s so tough. Shows go in and out.”

What was also notable was that while Mr. Fallon was in, David Letterman was out, and so was Jay Leno. Mr. Fallon was the only late-night host nominee representing a broadcast network. The rest came from cable: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien and Bill Maher. (The winner is scheduled to be announced next Sunday.)

“It was surprising,” said Michele Ganeless, president of Comedy Central. “The Emmys’ history is that they are a very traditional organization. I think it says that people are looking for fresh ideas in late night.”

The continuing Elizabethan history play that is late-night television has begun to settle since the implosion of last year. That’s when Mr. O’Brien was unseated from the “Tonight” show throne, and Mr. Leno took back the chair after an ill-conceived effort to move to 10 p.m., while Mr. Letterman lobbed in pointed japes from the sidelines. But while most network executives publicly express nothing but happiness with how things stand since that descent into chaos, unease remains under the surface. The future of some of the nobles appears clouded, and the late-night landscape is clearly undergoing what may well be a long-term shift, one greatly complicated by changing viewing habits, the rise of social media and the high cost of production.

The young male viewers who have always been the core of the post-11 p.m. audience are now pulled by many other choices — the “Adult Swim” shows on the Cartoon Network have become a real factor — and they are more likely than ever to shrug off watching the shows when they are broadcast in favor of clips available elsewhere. While that trend gives late-night segments cultural buzz on the morning after, it also casts a shadow over ratings, which can be sliced into segments favorable to anyone or deemed altogether irrelevant.

It is not that audiences aren’t there anymore. Including “Nightline,” ABC’s news entry, which has been thriving recently, the late-night offerings still typically total well over 12 million viewers. And beyond Mr. Fallon, whose ratings have improved, several others are strong, led by Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert, on Comedy Central, who continue to expand their reach and influence. Jimmy Kimmel on ABC has added viewers in the past year. And Chelsea Handler on E! is riding strong numbers with female viewers to a more competitive position. (Notably she has beaten Mr. O’Brien several weeks this summer.)

But in some quarters, particularly the more established network shows, the aftermath of the turbulence lingers.

When TBS canceled the midnight show hosted by George Lopez, it was hardly a shocker; ratings were low and dropping. But it renewed some questions that many producers and executives have been asking. Some veteran players have suggested, for example, that the familiar and expensive format — host, monologue, band, couch, guests — so durable for more than 50 years, is threatened by oversaturation and technological revolution at the same time. There’s a reason Mr. Fallon is credited with being the most adventurous of the hosts: He devotes considerable time and resources to incorporating digital ideas into his comedy, focusing especially on social media, a second home for many in his heavily college-based audience. But even with Mr. Lopez gone, Mr. Fallon’s show is one of nine with similar formats occupying the 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. hours.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman, the two hosts who have claimed the prime real estate since the 1990s, are not drawing audiences as they used to. Nothing in television is. That “Tonight” continues to have the biggest overall audience is a testament to the power of the franchise as well as Mr. Leno’s indefatigability.

But as he has throughout his career Mr. Leno is working hard to draw the widest possible audience. The best recent example: Heeding suggestions from NBC, Mr. Leno altered a routine going back to the days when he filled in for Johnny Carson, using his best regular comedy bit, Headlines, on Monday nights. Now the bit runs every Tuesday. Why? Because with “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” NBC built a potent Tuesday night in prime time, and “Tonight” needed to take better advantage of that lead-in audience, a crucial factor for every late-night host. But Mr. Leno has hardly returned to the level of dominance he enjoyed before being ripped from the only job he ever wanted. Since 2008 the last full season before the upheaval, he is down 30 percent among the younger-adult viewers that make up the advertiser target in late-night TV.

Things are even worse for the other late-night royal, Mr. Letterman. The summer has seen a string of weeks with the smallest audiences of his long, highly regarded career. He has suffered in part from not having a “Voice”-type lead-in; CBS’s summer repeats at 10 p.m. have fallen off sharply. But his ratings were eroding even before that. While Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, has nothing but praise for Mr. Letterman and his late-night follow-up, Craig Ferguson, calling them “still the two best guys in late night,” some Letterman supporters in and outside the network express dismay at the ratings dip.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=a69ff2e9f88b28f539a4fbafe3268b61

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