Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
In July, TBS announced that, after seven seasons, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” would not be returning, and Desus Nice and The Kid Mero disclosed that their Showtime show, “Desus & Mero,” was ending. That news came just months after James Corden revealed that he’d be leaving “The Late Late Show” and about a year after Conan O’Brien decided to say goodbye to late-night after almost 30 years.
If late-night television had a true golden age, we probably passed it sometime in the past decade. After a period of what looked like unchecked expansion, with new late-night shows popping up like wildflowers (or sometimes weeds), the reaper seems to have arrived. Late night’s future is now looking much more limited, if not completely grim.
The genre’s winnowing arguably began with Jon Stewart’s decision in 2015 to walk away from “The Daily Show,” which he hosted for more than 16 years. Unlike David Letterman and Jay Leno, who both stayed on well into their 60s, Stewart was only 52 when he stepped away. And O’Brien was only 58.
While Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon are still around as network hosts, their ratings have certainly taken a hit, especially among audiences between the ages of 18 and 54. And among the newer hosts who are still surviving, it seems unlikely many will have runs anywhere near as long as the recent legends.
Losing hosts of color, like Nice and The Kid Mero, and Bee, the most prominent woman host since Joan Rivers in the 1980s, is also not a sign of a prospering genre. At least Amber Ruffin, who broke out on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and is now starring in her own show on Peacock, has made a strong start.
And while it speaks to the trend of political partisans gravitating toward like-minded TV, Greg Gutfeld’s late-night show on Fox News has been a breakout hit for the network.
What’s happening to late-night TV? The gradual shift away from linear TV to streaming does not look hospitable to traditional late-night shows, which lean heavily on jokes about news of the day and topical comedy. Streaming shows by nature are not about immediacy and go for broader relevance over longer periods of time.
That describes “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the much-honored once-a-week show on HBO. It is a beloved series, but shares only part of its DNA with the rest of late night. It’s extremely serious about being funny, as it explores heavyweight news topics with investigative reporting techniques.
It is certainly an appealing format. Stewart has returned with a similar news-centric show on Apple TV+. Letterman has a pure interview show on Netflix. The streaming nature of these shows underscores they are not cut from the familiar cloth of comedy-centric late night.
Some critics attribute at least some of the slackening interest in late night to the overload of political commentary during the years of Donald Trump-dominated news. But Trump was so target-rich, he made political neutrality an almost impossible position for late-night hosts (some of whom he attacked personally).
But the fundamental issue with the future of late night is economics. One reason the shows thrived — even when so ubiquitous — was they were dependable money-makers. A solid, five-hour-a-week series in late night attracted good ad dollars; and the budgets, beyond big host salaries, were manageable.
Ratings have declined so much, however, (Leno and Letterman once had audiences much larger than Colbert has today) that the cash spigot is mostly trickling now, according to what a long-time executive producer of a hit late-night series told me several years ago. It’s surely worse now.
The essential problem, of course, is fewer and fewer people watch linear TV. They stream, or watch clips online. The drive to catch Letterman or Stewart every night is not there anymore, especially among college guys, a prime target for late-night advertisers. Audiences for late-night shows are older now, which makes them less valuable in the eyes of advertisers.
That doesn’t mean late-night shows are going away. The format is too efficient for eradication. The subscription model is still reaching viewers who like late night. Fallon just hit the 30 million subscriber mark on YouTube. Viewers still enjoy selective parts of a late-night show (usually the comedy), but don’t commit to watching the entire show when it airs.
Maybe the genre will shrink all the way down to just a few shows. Depending on how many entrants leave the arena, the survivors may be able to take advantage of grabbing the viewers still interested in some laughs before bed.