A Tree Falls in Late Night

trevor noah
Credit: Comedy Central
Dylan Byers
September 30, 2022

Every year, in May, Jimmy Kimmel stands on a stage at Disney’s upfronts and artfully and hilariously skewers the nation’s biggest television advertisers for once again spending more money to reach fewer viewers. In 2010, he quipped that network television wasn’t losing ground to cable, but rather gaining on newspapers. In 2013, he compared broadcast TV to Apple—only in the sense that their products got smaller every year. In 2018: “Our ratings are going down and our prices are going up. Too bad, eat it!” In 2019: “You obviously have a lot of choices for how and where to throw your money away. We hope you throw your money away on us.” And this year: “Somehow, even though ratings are down, ad spending for broadcast television was up 37 percent in the first quarter of this year. How is that possible? The more viewers we lose, the more money you give us. What kind of message is this sending?”

The jokes always land, of course, because Kimmel is a uniquely talented and affable host. But as one veteran television executive told me, “every year everyone laughs and cries a little more inside.” Advertisers really do spend more money to reach fewer viewers every year, partly because they’re not exactly sure what else to do. Despite its collapse, broadcast still remains a relatively efficient and effective way to reach a lot of people. But broadcast’s reach has shrunk considerably, and continues to shrink, as streaming video devours market share and more efficient ad platforms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon expand their dominance. As several current and former television executives have told me in recent years, the moment is fast approaching when advertisers will decide that everything on television, except for live sports, is no longer worth the price of admission—and the result will be the end of broadcast as we know it. It’s a game of brinksmanship that many in the business speculate and hypothesize about daily.

Coincidentally, the next casualty of this decline is likely Kimmel’s own genre: the late night talk show. Immortalized by Johnny Carson in the ‘60s and ‘70s and a fixture of popular culture in the LenoLetterman ‘90s, the format proliferated across broadcast and cable in recent decades with ever-more late and late late night programs. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show alone birthed an entire generation of influential liberal late-night hosts, including Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah, the last of whom took over Stewart’s chair in 2015. For a time, it seemed as if every comedian who wanted a cable show could get one. The economic model made sense: The star was expensive, yes, but there only had to be one; the guests were all freely hawking their wares; advertisers coveted younger audiences who stayed up late.

Now, all of a sudden, the genre is contracting at a breathtaking clip. Conan O’Brien ended his three-decade run last year; James Corden has announced that he will leave his CBS show next year; Showtime’s Desus & Mero ended in June and TBS’s Full Frontal, hosted by Bee, was canceled in July. Finally, this week, Noah announced that he intends to leave The Daily Show after a seven-year run. Noah, who has reportedly grossed eight figures in international touring, told his audience that he missed “going to other countries and putting on shows.” Comedy Central says there will be a “next chapter” for The Daily Show, but has not named a new host. 

Sooner rather than later, this contraction will hit broadcast’s 11:35 p.m. time slot, as well. The economics of late night simply don’t work, several television executives told me, for the new realities of the industry. The talent is too expensive and, as fewer and fewer people watch, the shows no longer make meaningful money. In August and September, Fox News’ new late-night offering, Gutfeld!, beat out CBS’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert in the ratings, at least momentarily making Greg Gutfeld, smug troller of the left, the nominal king of a normally liberal genre. It was yet another victory for the conservative cable network—which has become America’s most-watched cable channel, and alone seems immune to the market forces that are devastating linear television—but also a stark reminder of broadcast television’s shrinking claim on the culture. 

Perhaps, so long as there is broadcast, there will be some sort of entertainment following local news. But the writing is on the walls for the networks, and across late night. NBC has been looking at giving back the 10 p.m. hour of primetime to its local affiliates, a concession that will likely become inevitable as younger generations abandon the linear format. Indeed, in a fractured culture dominated by Netflix, TikTok, and omnipresent second screens, the current trifecta of late night hosts—CBS’s Colbert, ABC’s Kimmel and NBC’s Jimmy Fallon—are likely the last generation of household names to populate the 11:35 hour. Future hosts will be smaller, less famous (and less expensive), miniature versions of their predecessors, just as Colbert and the Jimmys never achieved the cultural influence of Carson, let alone Leno or Letterman.

On some level, it is a simulacrum of what we are seeing across the landscape—to cable news hosts, to magazine editors, to even A-list showrunners—as economic models shift and budget-sensitive legacy players fortify their balance sheets while an era keeps ending. The good news about the Noah departure, however, is that he’s a young talent entering his prime, presumably more focused on figuring out the next thing than delaying his tour down the greasy pole of the old one. Executives across the media landscape are trying to figure out the format innovation that leads to the next generation of the late night show. Noah may be a useful sherpa.