If late-night television had a true golden age, we’ve probably surpassed it in the last decade. After a period of what felt like unchecked expansion, with new late-night shows springing up like wildflowers (or sometimes weeds), the grim reaper seems to have arrived. The future of Late Night now looks much more limited, if not downright bleak.
While Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon are still featured as network hosts, their ratings have certainly taken a hit, especially among audiences aged 18-54. And of the new hosts still surviving, it seems unlikely that many will. have runs as long as recent legends.
And while it’s a testament to the trend of like-minded political supporters turning to television, Greg Gutfeld’s late-night show on Fox News was a smash hit for the network.
What happens to late night television? The gradual shift from linear television to streaming does not seem favorable to traditional late-night shows, which rely heavily on jokes about the day’s news and topical comedy. Streaming shows, by their nature, are not about immediacy and opt for broader relevance over longer periods of time.
This describes “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”, the popular weekly show on HBO. It’s a beloved series, but only shares part of its DNA with the rest of Late Night. It’s seriously serious about being funny, as it explores heavy news topics with investigative reporting techniques.
But the fundamental problem with the late night future is economic. One of the reasons the shows thrived – even when they were so ubiquitous – was that they were reliable sources of money. A strong five-hour-a-week late-night series drew good advertising dollars; and budgets, beyond fat host salaries, were manageable.
The main problem, of course, is that fewer and fewer people are watching linear television. They stream or watch clips online. The drive to catch Letterman or Stewart every night is gone, especially among college students, a prime target for late-night announcers. Audiences for late-night shows are now older, making them less valuable to advertisers.
That doesn’t mean late-night shows are going away. The format is too effective for eradication. The subscription model still hits late-night viewers. Fallon just hit the 30 million subscriber mark on YouTube. Viewers always enjoy certain 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 narrow down to just a few shows. Depending on how many participants leave the arena, survivors may be able to take the opportunity to catch viewers still interested in a few laughs before bed.