Why These Shows Work Better as Clips

The Death of Late Night

We discussed a while back the return of Jon Stewart to The Daily Show. I like Jon Stewart and I think that, back in his original run on the series, he did craft The Daily Show into a cultural juggernaut. He passed the reins to Trevor Noah and while I don’t think the show maintained its same key place in culture, Noah did a good job as “the follow-up guy”, keeping the show running for a while. The series wasn’t able to find anyone to take up the host spot when Noah left (their best candidate, Hasan Minhaj, was apparently almost offered the gig before becoming mired in controversy), so Comedy Central was able to pull out the “in case of dire ratings, break glass” contingency and did the unthinkable: they got Jon Stewart back.

Now, of course, that was a bit of serendipity there as Apple had just ended Stewart’s show, The Problem with Jon Stewart, and the comedian was a free agent once more. He wanted to continue doing his political thing, clearly, so going back when he became famous and doing his thing again wasn’t a huge stretch. It was the professor emeritus, the comedian-among-comedians, if you will, and even though he probably did want to get back to a place that was familiar and would let him do his thing, it’s also true that Comedy Central needed Stewart even more.

The fact is, and this is true across the board, that late night television is dying. Slowly, yes, but dying all the same. Ratings are down for broadcast late night shows, and streaming has yet to take over as the de facto place for this kind of content. Most of the shows do get viewers, but that’s via the clips posted on YouTube and other video posting sites, and the advertising dollars garnered from these views is nowhere near as lucrative as it would be on broadcast (and basic cable) television. The Daily Show is not the money maker it once was and that’s just because the landscape for television has changed.

I am like most viewers at this point. I like to start my day with a bit of news to keep up with current events (and tech news, as I work in the tech sector), and then I turn to the clips on YouTube of the late night comedians to see what they were up to the night before. The monologue and interior comedic news segments from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the “A Closer Look” bits from Late Night with Seth Myers. The opening monologue from Jon Stewart during his Monday episodes of The Daily Show (as he’s the host once a week now), and the main story from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Those are the parts of the shows I enjoy, while the other bits – interviews with celebrities, musical acts, etc. – have never been my cup of tea. When I was watching The Daily Show weekly on my DVR (back when I had cable) I’d watch the first two segments and then turn the show off before the interview portion. It’s just not my jam.

Of course that’s why the online posted segments work so well for viewers like myself. We can pick and choose what content. We want to watch and avoid everything else that bores us. Late night television was built to get people sucked in and then keep them there so that they’d watch the commercials. Don’t like a segment? Well just wait five minutes for the next commercial break, and then a new segment or show will start. Stay there, stay tuned, and we’ll keep pumping content into your eyeholes.

That is the way the whole industry was built, and streaming services have almost completely eroded that. Unless you are still one of the few. People watching broadcast TV you probably don’t ever see commercials. You may very well pay for ad-free subscription services, or use an ad-blocker to get rid of ads on the web-based streaming channels. The promise of streaming was that you can get what you wanted, when you wanted, and ignore all the commercials and everything else that ruined the experience. That’s great for consumers but bad for the businesses that don’t know how to otherwise monetize their products.

On the late night front, this had put many of these shows in a pinch. Sure, The Daily Show wasn’t able to find a permanent host, and they were able to lure Jon Stewart back with the promise that he only had to do one of the four broadcasts each week and could act as executive producer for the series. You have to think, though, that there was a cost saving part of this whole deal, too. If he only does one day a week then Comedy Central doesn’t have to pay Stewart as much (since hosts are usually paid per episode). The other comedians working on the show aren’t as big of names so they don’t get paid as much, even when hosting, and the network is able to cut costs. It’s a win in their book even if the show is in this weird place with its rotating cast of commentators.

Sure the scandal that rocked Minhaj is part of the reason that the network is in this position. For the record the “scandal” doesn’t seem as big as everyone made it out to be, though. Minhaj was caught lying about things that happened to him for his comedy routines. Thing is, he’s a comedian and, yes, comedians lie. They exaggerate stories and blow things out of proportion for laughs. That comes with the territory. The producers for the show said they couldn’t hire Minhaj because there was now a “trust issue”, but you also have to think that maybe he just cost too much and the producers were looking for an out they could take.

Still, the budgetary issues that are clearly hanging over The Daily Show are also catching up with the other late night hosts as well. John Oliver made a stink recently when his contract with HBO was renewed and he didn’t get an expected raise. He makes $1 Mil an episode, and he wanted hired (and while we could make jokes about him “only” making $1 Mil an episode, the fact is that he’s a celebrity and what he makes on one contract directly affects his contracts on other projects, so being made about his pay is fair). The band, and all associated employees that worked on coordinating the music, for Late Night were let go for next season. The Late Late Show was dissolved completely after James Corden left, replaced with the much cheaper to produce @fter midnight (itself a resurrection of Comedy Central’s @midnight). These are all cost-cutting measures to keep late night afloat in these leaner times.

The fact is that late night programming feels like an artifact of a bygone time. These shows are still being made, yes, but the audience they were catering to doesn’t really exist like it used to. Just the very name, “late night”, barely has any meaning when most of the audience doesn’t watch the shows at night. Between streaming clips, episodes on streaming services, and DVRs, most people don’t watch these shows until hours or days later. Their very place on the schedule is malleable, based on the viewing habits of those that actually watch.

Long term late night television is going to have to change, much like everything else in this streaming world. More than likely it’ll get scaled down and streamlined just to clips on YouTube and Tiktok, the segments people like with pre-roll, mid-roll, and post roll ads included. It’ll be the way the companies making these things make money. That, or the next generation of YouTube stars will come along and do it so much better on their own the companies won’t even be able to keep up. But late night, as it stands now, probably only has a few more years in it before it hits the dustbin of history.