Trump & Political Sideshows Both a Blessing and Curse for Late-Night TV

Donald Trump Late Night TV Commentary
Alex Fine for Variety

Tom Purcell never expected his staff to expend this much energy on one person.

When Purcell, executive producer of CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” assembles his writers each day, they can’t stop talking about Donald Trump, the pugnacious mogul and possible Republican presidential nominee who has usurped the news cycle. “The pieces we do on politics get by far the most views and YouTube hits of anything we do,” he said. “It’s a gift to us that is unprecedented.”

That gift is both blessing and curse. TV’s late-night hosts have to top not just each other, but also the candidates themselves — particularly Trump, who delivers viral soundbytes and GIF-able moments in an endless series of interviews, rallies and tweets.

Moreover, the comedic challenge and opportunity that is Trump arrived on the heels of the exits of Jon Stewart and Colbert, TV’s two top political satirists, from their long-held posts at Comedy Central. And while Colbert now commands CBS’ top late-night position, the focus of his show has shifted to the mainstream from what had been a left-leaning lampoon of a partisan cable news program.

“Colbert still has brilliant political segments, or even brilliant political interviews, but it seems diluted by the mass appeal that he has to do nightly in order for it to be a variety show,” said Jeffrey P. Jones, a Univeristy of Georgia professor and director of the Peabody Awards.

“There are now 15 or 20 late-night shows, and they’re all going after the same piece of meat.”
Matt O’Brien, “Conan”

Purcell said “Late Show” staffers are pleased with the program, but recognize it’s yet in launch mode. “There is still definitely a feedback loop going on, and we are still making adjustments,” he said.

The changes at Comedy Central were part of an industry-wide shakeup that has seen more hosts than ever populating the late-night landscape: Chelsea Handler just announced she’ll be entering the fray come May.

But none has dominated the conversation this political season the way Colbert and Stewart did in previous election cycles.

“The main challenge is that there are now 15 or 20 late-night shows, and they’re all going after the same piece of meat,” said Matt O’Brien, head writer of TBS’ “Conan.” “You have to be a little more contemplative in terms of finding an original angle, because there’s inevitably going to be overlap between all these shows.”

For instance, in his broader platform, Colbert must compete with NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in the drive to book candidates and enjoy that so-called Trump Bump. And while the CBS host has landed some potent punches, including his “Trump vs. Trump” debate, he struggles to keep up with Kimmel’s ratings and falls well short of Fallon’s.

Meanwhile, in the 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. time periods previously held by Stewart and Colbert at Comedy Central, now sit Trevor Noah, new host of “The Daily Show,” and Larry Wilmore, whose “The Nightly Show” has succeeded “The Colbert Report.” Though all the networks have suffered late-night ratings declines, Comedy Central’s have been among the steepest. For the week of March 2, “The Daily Show” was down 32% from one year ago in viewers 18-49, according to Nielsen, and “The Nightly Show” is down 30% from “Colbert.” Steve Bodow and Rory Albanese, the executive producers of “Daily” and “Nightly,” respectively, each said the hosts are working to find an audience, and noted they are making strides with digital crowds.

Not that there haven’t been some ratings bright spots. “Late Night With Seth Meyers” has seen its numbers hold steady in 18-49 and even grow in total viewers. As the presidential campaigns picked up steam in August, Meyers, formerly “Saturday Night Live’s” longtime Weekend Update host, jettisoned the traditional stand-up monologue and began kicking off his show from behind his desk — giving “Late Night” a newsier, more satirical tone.

Race for Second
Among viewers 18-49, the real late-night war at 11:30 p.m. is the battle for second place.
1.15m “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” NBC
668k ”Jimmy Kimmel Live,” ABC
613k “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” CBS

Source: Nielsen live-plus-same day data for week of March 2

And one-time “Daily Show” correspondents Samantha Bee with her TBS series “Full Frontal,” and John Oliver with his HBO pulpit “Last Week Tonight,” have seen their segments catch fire on social media. Oliver rallied many to his cause on a recent edition by urging viewers to take to social media to get people to refer to Trump by his original German surname, “Drumpf.”

But those two programs appear weekly, feeding far less content into the machine than that supplied by either the nightly comedy shows or even the candidates themselves.

The question remains whether the new cadre of hosts has what it takes to live up to the politicians. “In this new world of social media, all television, including late-night TV, plays a supporting role,” said Paul Levinson, a media studies professor at Fordham University “The debates, town halls and rallies constantly covered — Trump’s in particular — literally and figuratively trump anything that late night can do.”

Late-night TV serves as a reflection of popular culture. Whatever’s trending with the masses is going to show up in a monologue or sketch. Yet this political cycle is surreal: Debates take on the air of professional-wrestling matches. Social-media taunts replace policy positions. TV viewers may not need a carnival mirror when the fun-house appears to be open 24/7.

“The actual election,” said Madeleine Smithberg, co-creator of “The Daily Show,” “is doing a great job of satirizing itself.”