Who’s Winning the Late-Night Ratings Battle? A Look at the Numbers

Who is Winning the Latenight Battle
Michael Marsicano for Variety

Get in the ring, Stephen Colbert.

Armed with the promotional power of CBS, the erudite late-night host notched a big crowd in early September to applaud the launch of his tenure on the network’s “Late Show.” He even outmuscled ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who had been nestled firmly in the time period’s second-place slot, behind NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, host of the “Tonight Show.”

Three months later, the dust has settled, and the winners — and losers — in late night have emerged. While Fallon dominates the field handily (he’s won the last 10 weeks in total viewers), Kimmel has surged to rival Colbert among viewers between 18 and 49, the ones coveted most by advertisers.

Meanwhile, Comedy Central’s late-night pair — Trevor Noah at “The Daily Show” and Larry Wilmore at “The Nightly Show” — have suffered precipitous ratings tumbles in comparison with last year, when Jon Stewart and Colbert were sitting behind the desks of the programs in those time slots.

“When any host changes on any of these shows, it’s an opportunity.”
Rick Ludwin, former NBC exec

With so many contestants vying for attention ’round midnight, everyone’s going to get their hair mussed. Further complicating matters, late-night TV continues to evolve: an earlier time slot for Kimmel; a revamped late-night “SportsCenter” on ESPN; a vibrant new format in Chris Hardwick’s “@midnight” on Comedy Central; a traveling Conan O’Brien on TBS; and the ongoing school of young people drawn to Adult Swim.

The melee is bringing in advertisers in droves, said Vinny Merlino, associate director of national video at ad agency Deutsch. Demand for late-night commercials has been so high that buyers are having trouble getting the exact schedules they want. “It’s the influx of new or changing hosts,” he said. “Things are really shaking up,” so late-night seems more exciting than primetime.

Advertisers also know that late-night TV travels well on social media. “We have to figure out not only how we can be part of the on-air, but share in the conversation that happens the next day, two days later, or in perpetuity,” said Carrie Drinkwater, senior vice president of investment at Mediahub, part of the large Mullen Lowe agency.

If TV networks want to spark any shift in viewer behavior and vie for ad dollars, they must strike during a transition period like this one. “When any host changes on any of these shows, it’s an opportunity,” said Rick Ludwin, who supervised NBC late-night programs for decades. But the window is a short one, he cautions: Six months after a big change in the time slot, viewing patterns tend to grow more rigid.

Scenes From Late Nite
The hosts are battling it out for viewers in every demographic
118% Stephen Colbert’s increase over David Letterman in adults 18-34
70% Larry Wilmore’s decrease in men 18-34 vs. 2014 (he’s down 61% in women 18-24)
42.1 The median age of “Conan,” the youngest of all the late-night shows

Of course, tracking the ratings for late-night TV can be something of a futile exercise. According to data from Comedy Central, 40% of “Daily Show” content consumption now occurs on digital platforms, compared with 30% when Stewart was host. The network sees the show getting an additional 650,000 full-episode views per broadcast via digital means. Earlier this year, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told investors of parent company Comcast that 70% of the views of NBC’s “Tonight Show” were digital.

As a result, shifts in audience are being examined on a wider level. According to Amobee Brand Intelligence, which analyzes digital content engagement on more than 600,000 sites across mobile, video, Web and social, the first week with Colbert as host of “The Late Show” generated 73% more engagement than Fallon during the same frame. However, since then, there’s been 47% more digital content engagement around Fallon than Colbert. The host who has gained the most in this category since September is James Corden, of CBS’ “Late Late Show,” who is generating 58% of the digital engagement of Fallon — up from just 12% of the leader in September.

Amid the rough-and-tumble battle for eyeballs, what’s clear is that the hosts are staking out their territory: Fallon is the entertainer. Kimmel wields an edge. Colbert aims for the brain as much as the funny bone. Wilmore sheds light on topics the others won’t touch. O’Brien has become the dean of the format, burnishing a cerebral brand of humor. Noah could be the comedic news voice of a growing multicultural generation.

In that light, the hosts need to build appeal with their core viewers, and then work to branch out. For instance, Colbert may not be the most-watched host in the wee hours, but his “Late Show” nabbed 52% more viewers between 18 and 49 in the first nine weeks of the television season, which exclude Colbert’s first two weeks, compared with the year-earlier period, and snared 118% more viewers between 18 and 34.

“The show can be very successful and very profitable without having to worry about Fallon and/or Kimmel,” said David Poltrack, CBS Corp.’s chief research officer. Colbert is luring a well-heeled, highly educated viewership, he said. “As long as he can hold on to that audience, he doesn’t have to win the numbers(game).” In other words, in a time slot splintered by new hosts, Colbert has to trump David Letterman, not Jimmy Fallon — at least for now.

Consider that the new math of a changing late night.

late nite tv ratings chart
Click image for large preview

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  1. Pete Smith says:

    Too bad Fallon is so unfunny. Colbert is going to crush him this year. Just wait. He just started and almost neck in neck.

  2. Dario says:

    EVERYONE is missing the reality of the competition. Jimmy Fallon is crushing it when you factor in the “real play” in this media battle, YOUTUBE. Jimmy Fallon’s official show page boasts OVER 2 BILLION views with many clips averaging OVER 40 MILLION views EACH. Add in 10 MILLION subscribers, game is over.

    Look over at Colbert YouTube page and its a joke in comparison.

  3. Real Mick says:

    Fallon is highest among the moron demo, just like Leno was. CBS at least provides something someone with a brain can stand. Fallon is just so fawning it makes me ill. I’ve given up on Kimmel. He’s just too boring long term.

  4. mark lloyd says:

    I have given up on all of these late night shows.I try to find something funny but haven’t found anything.

  5. Ferd Berfel says:

    What’s more telling is how Colbert’s ratings have been dropping since his debut. The “newness” factor is gone, and so is the curiosity among the audience. Even Seth Myers has better numbers now. CBS blew it by bringing in a guy who’d already alienated half their potential audience before he even arrived. It won’t get better.

    • Real Mich says:

      Dream on right-winger. There are more of us than you. Just keep watching whatever dreck they make for you. As far as I can tell, there are no late night shows for the right-wing loser demo.

    • McbM says:

      All late night ratings drop significantly from their debut week, so that is really non-news, even Fallon dropped significantly after his debut.

      Also, Seth Meyers does not have better numbers. His 18-49 demo ratings beat Colbert’s exactly one day, that is all.

      I’m not saying Colbert isn’t having issues, losing 2nd place to Kimmel is a big deal. I’m just saying you you shouldn’t get your entertainment news from such a biased source.

  6. Spektor says:

    Jesus, no one’s watching Wilmore.

    • manny smith says:

      People are loyal to the Colbert Report time slot and when Colbert finally came on half Larry Wilmore’s viewers went back to Colbert.
      Larry is very watchable if you are under 50 and Trevor can hold his own.

    • RobotShlomo says:

      Wilmore is unwatchable. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets the axe at some point. As for Trevor Noah, Comedy Central is starting to sound like the manager of Spinal Tap. His audience is becoming “more selective”. If Wilmore goes, then the clock will be ticking on Trevor Noah. He won’t be able to carry 11pm by himself, and he sure as hell won’t be a good lead in for anyone else.

  7. Carl LaFong says:

    CBS is conveniently ignoring Letterman’s Thursday night programs that aired after the NFL last year. Those were higher rated and broken out separately from the rest of the week. This year CBS is including Colbert’s post-football programs in the average, artificially increasing the viewing differential between the two shows.

  8. Jeff Barge says:

    It’s like a gigantic tilt-a-wheel careening left and right, up and down, just waiting for that last rusty bolt to release it into the stratosphere.

  9. Chan says:

    Trevor Noah at “The Daily Show” and Larry Wilmore at “The Nightly Show” — have suffered precipitous ratings tumbles in comparison with last year, when Jon Stewart and Colbert were sitting behind the desks of the programs in those time slots.

    White liberals deserting the black hosts in droves.

    • Real Mick says:

      Every white person I know loves Larry WIllmore, although prob not the older white males I don’t hang out with. I love hearing white guys like you comment on how all whites can’t watch blacks. Just keep telling yourself that, and I’m sure noone’s coming to your for marketing info, since both Noah and WIllmore capture huge millenial segements, who are the future after all. I know it hurts to be old, although I know plenty of old white ladies that like both of these guys. Now go away.

    • JoeMcG says:

      Wow. I’m a white liberal, and for your information, I love America, and I don’t hate black people. In fact, after watching several months of the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, I’m beginning to feel like a black person when I read these kinds of attacks on liberals. And I think Trever Noah has pretty seamlessly filled the Daily Show’s chair in place of Stewart. Look, both these hosts and shows are fairly new. Ratings are down because a lot of that older demographic has followed Colbert to the Late Show (or to HBO for John Oliver). These newer guys are still getting their footing. I think things will be much different come this time next year.

    • Joe says:

      They’re not deserting these hosts because they’re black. They’re deserting them because they’re not funny.

      • Dev Martin says:

        This must be the only site that has the reply buttons *above* a given post, rather than next to where a reply will end up. Yeah…

      • Dev Martin says:

        This is true. I’ve been rooting for Trevor Noah since before he became host. He didn’t become funny with any sort of regularity until this week. His in studio audience is noticeably responding more heartily and keeping a better rhythm as well.

        Also, most people are racist. The thing I like the least about the show is actually not the fault of the show or Trevor. It’s the constant reminder that his harshest critics, some of whom were fans of Jon Stewart, don’t know how racist they are.

    • Steve says:

      Great comment! White liberals hate America and they hate blacks.
      Blacks should not be hosting talk shows or any shows.
      White libs just feel guilty, that’s the only reason blacks host shows.

      • manny smith says:

        @Steve, “Blacks should not be hosting talk shows or any shows.”

        What, you want them back working your plantations and polishing your shoes?

        Trevor Noah is twice the man you will ever be.

      • JidoGeorge says:

        White liberals guilt is the only reason Obama was elected.

      • Chan says:

        How do I put this nicely?

        Black hosts do not attract enough of the demo that is most attractive to advertisers. It isn’t about PC culture. It is about the dollars.

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