Will Late-Night TV Outlive TV?

Ben Winston, executive producer for the 2023 Grammys.
Ben Winston, executive producer of the 2023 Grammys. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
February 5, 2023

When The Late Late Show with James Corden signs off on April 27 after eight years, CBS’s George Cheeks will face a big decision. Replace Corden at 12:30 with another late-night talk show, despite the fact that linear ratings have declined to the point where the costs associated with a host-driven, five-night-a-week studio show make less and less sense; do something else (cheaper); or throw in the towel and air reruns or MyPillow infomercials after Colbert. Ben Winston, Corden’s executive producer and a partner in Fulwell73, the television and film production company, fully recognizes that challenge and is hoping to evolve talk shows and live specials for streaming, particularly for the new ad-driven tiers. It’s already happening, he noted on my podcast, The Town, ahead of tonight’s Grammys on CBS, which Winston is executive producing. Netflix is going live with a Chris Rock special and will air the SAG Awards next year, and Fulwell produced an Elton John concert for Disney+. We talked about the future of late night TV and more, and I edited the conversation for length and clarity.  

Matt Belloni: The Grammys is said to be one of the most difficult live shows to produce. Why?  

Ben Winston: Firstly, you’re on air for three and a half hours. That is a long time to be on TV.

A lot can go wrong.

Also, if you’re filming the Super Bowl or the Queen’s funeral, the event is taking place and you are just filming it. We actually have to create the event. We have to book the show. You have 19 performances. Everybody’s an A-lister—even if they’re not an A-lister, in their head they’re definitely an A-lister. Some people will have a hundred choir members, some will have 10 people in a band, some will have dancers, and they’ll all have security and managers and publicists. You’ve got three minutes to build that Lady Gaga set. As soon as she walks off stage, you’ve immediately only got an award and a commercial break before you need to build Harry Styles’ set. Plus, the pressure of everyone having an opinion on the Grammys and the fact that it’s network television. I can’t think of a tougher show.

I can’t imagine balancing all the egos.

Look, there’s a lot of selling in my job. I run this with Raj Kapoor, and there’s a lot of explaining why things are great.

The fact that people are not watching these live shows as much, how does that make you feel? You’re becoming the king of this realm, and the realm is getting smaller.

It depends how you look at it. I make television, whether it be a late night show or an award show, or an Adele special, or a Friends reunion, or whatever it might be, and you look at it as a moment of entertainment. People will come to it whenever they want to come to it, which is the way the world works now. According to NetBase, last year’s [Grammys] show had 94 billion impressions on social media of people watching our clips. Ninety-four billion. Sit-coms don’t have that. The news doesn’t have that, documentary doesn’t have that. If I’m only looking at linear ratings, I’m ignoring the way people watch television.

Well, the monetization needs to catch up, because you can get a billion impressions and it’s pennies for the network dollars.

Absolutely. Late night is a good example of that. Very early, we had to work out how to monetize our show outside of the ratings, and that was a significant moment when we worked that out. It’s when we built the bar that was in our set. It’s when we got the spinoff shows. We have five seasons of Carpool Karaoke on Apple. I think we did six seasons of Drop the Mic on TBS; we worked out how to make money outside of the old-fashioned way of commercials at 12:37.

You guys are wrapping up Late Late Show. Some think once the current crop of hosts gives up those chairs, whether it’s you guys or Colbert or Seth or the Jimmys, that these shows will go away or morph into something else. Because the economics of late night are not what they once were. YouTube numbers are good, but like we’ve talked about, the monetization on those videos may not justify the prices that some of these hosts can command.

It’s very difficult right now because people love the hosts that are out there. But when they do go, will people come to a brand new host?  

And younger audiences just aren’t watching broadcast television.

So they go to streamers. Right now, we have to be honest, these shows are fundamentally not working on streamers in any way. Because people’s mentality when they go to streamers is, I want to watch a drama. I want to watch a scripted show. It’s the same issue that we are having with award shows on streamers. I think this all changes, and here’s my pitch to you, Matt: This all changes when Netflix and Paramount+ and Peacock and Disney+, when they start going into live programming. This is the thing they’re obviously going after next. You see Chris Rock at Netflix, and you can see with Elton and Disney+ that we did, and that’s a success.

But five-days-a-week shows?

Maybe not. But I do think fundamentally, great entertainment is great entertainment. John Oliver’s numbers on YouTube are great; if it’s good, it will rise to the top. That might be in a three-minute video in TikTok, or it might be in an hour long show with Stephen Colbert.

I do think that the right type of show can work on streaming. It just has to feel like you can watch it that night or you can watch it a few days later. So many of these late night shows feel so urgent and topical, the monologue is the news of the day. The guest is the guy promoting the movie that’s coming out on Friday. A lot of that is gonna go away. First of all, those guests typically don’t say anything. A lot of the chat shows have been replaced by, frankly, podcasts and other longform things you can get elsewhere. But if you guys can come up with a format that feels urgent and relevant but plays a little bit longer on streaming, then that could work. Chris Rock is gonna air live on Netflix but it’s also gonna live on Netflix after that and still be a Chris Rock special. You don’t have to watch live.

Also, the numbers on late night aren’t terrible, right? Colbert will often rate higher than what’s in prime time. So it’s still an absolutely valuable asset.

If you had to predict, what do you think CBS will do at 12:30?

Hard for me to say, cause I’m involved in a few different conversations at the network. You have to ask George Cheeks.

The Elton concert at Dodger Stadium ended up being significant because it was the night that Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek was fired and the email went around saying that Bob Iger was coming back. You were there in the control room with a number of Disney executives.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. I was in the hospitality tent with all of the Disney executives. Chapek was supposed to come. We had four seats for him, and then about three hours earlier [they said] he’s not able to come. We thought nothing of it. And then we went into that tent and I was literally chatting with about seven or eight quite high-powered Disney execs and their phones went off, and they all walked in separate directions. Me and Gabe Turner, who I was producing it with, we were like, Have we done something wrong? And then one of them came back and said, “Our emails have been hacked.”

I also thought it was fake at first.

To see all of their reactions when they found out they had a new boss was really a sight to behold. You could see everybody just thinking, how does this play for me?

So where exactly are you during the Grammys show?

This is where I’m slightly different. In America, the tradition is the E.P. is side of stage and right in the thick of it. British E.P.s are in the truck, or the control room. And that’s where I always go because I always think, how can you produce a show if you can’t hear it and see it and feel it?

Most importantly, if someone is pissed off, they can’t complain to you in person.

Security is on the door of the truck.