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Late-Night Hosts Get Political in Bid to Win Votes From Viewers

Who would line up in an NBC waiting room for hours as the clock ticks past midnight? Dozens of people, as it turns out, all coming to the network’s New York City headquarters in a bid to watch history being made.

The crowd hunkering down at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters on the night of July 22 expected to see the first live broadcast in the on-air tenure of the network’s wee-hours “Late Night” franchise. The idea was to get a view of Seth Meyers making fun of that evening’s Republican National Convention on live TV quickly after Donald Trump accepted the nomination – something David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon had never done during their time on the show. To make it happen, staffers rejiggered their routines, even bringing in extra cue-card writers  so riffs could be readied for the host as quickly as the writers, watching the convention coverage live, could come up with them.

“The idea of getting so close to the source was irresistible,” says “Late Night” producer Mike Shoemaker.

Beneath the ripped-from-the-livestream humor, however, is something quite serious. The battle to win TV’s late-night wars has grown as fierce as the one brewing between Trump and Hillary Clinton. TV’s late-night crowd sees the time between the start of last week’s Republican convention and the end of this week’s Democratic event as a make-or-break period. With so many hosts tossing zingers, it’s getting harder to stand out.

“Every day you’re on, you have to give people a reason to come and watch you that’s different from your competition,” says Chris Licht, executive producer of CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

Hunger to Stand Out: Stephen Colbert at the Republican National Convention Greg E. Mathieson Sr./REX/Shutterstock

And so TV’s wee-hours watchers have a surfeit of delights in July: two weeks of live shows from Colbert; one live “Late Night” on NBC during each convention week; two weeks of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” on the ground at the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia; extra episodes of Bill Maher’s live “Real Time” on HBO; even an election-themed special from TBS’ Samantha Bee. Even “Saturday Night Live,” normally on summer hiatus, is getting in on the action, sending “Weekend Update” anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che for live post-midnight berths on MSNBC from each convention once each week.

“The ‘live from’ is a like a shot of adrenaline,” says Ira Berger, director of national broadcast buying at the Richards Group, a large independent ad agency based in Dallas. “The hope is that it brings some much-needed attention and new viewers, and those new viewers stay with the show post-convention.”

The networks have plenty of reason to test new ideas. CBS is eager to see Colbert strengthen his show’s ratings (and has seen spikes in its viewership between the ages of 18 and 49 during the first week of live shows).  Licht, the former executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” was brought in in April to help Colbert, who was taking on too much responsibility behind the scenes. Meanwhile, NBC is pushing Meyers as a new force in political comedy. HBO live-streamed Maher on YouTube, an attempt to dangle his edgy commentary to a crowd that doesn’t subscribe to its pay-cable service, as the Time Warner-owned unit vies with Netflix and Amazon. And Comedy Central is making the case that Noah is finding his voice after inheriting the “Daily Show” job from Jon Stewart.

Indeed,  Stewart’s shadow hangs over the entire circus. This is the first election in several cycles that has not had him at “The Daily Show” desk offering the pointed commentary that made him a mainstay among a certain generation of late-night watchers. It’s no surprise that Stewart’s appearances last week on CBS’ “Late Show,” along with Colbert’s revival of the bloviating commentator who thrilled a nation on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” made such a mark. Their voices have been sorely missed.

“Between ‘The Daily Show’ and its little brother, ‘Colbert Report,’ Comedy Central was the juggernaut of political satire coverage of the conventions,” says Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication who has studied late-night shows for more than 15 years. Now, with former “Daily Show” correspondents like John Oliver doing his own show at HBO and Bee at TBS, there’s a sense the title is up for grabs.

Talking Points
• Networks see the two convention weeks as a make-or-break time when their late-night shows can stand out in a crowded field.
Donald Trump’s long acceptance speech at the RNC strained the live-coverage plans of many shows.

Comedy Central isn’t just handing it over. It’s no secret that ratings for “The Daily Show” have declined since Noah took the lead, but the Viacom-owned network has placed more emphasis on millennial viewers, instead of aiming for the broadest possible crowd. The network is making specific attempts during the conventions to capture these younger consumers through digital media, including Snapchat, while letting Noah find his footing. “He’s really getting on to another level of comfort and confidence with the show, and turning it into his own,” Comedy Central president Kent Alterman said in a recent interview.

The competition is not making it easy for Noah. Stewart, now a “Late Show” producer, offered commentary in a live, early-morning “Late Show” episode on July 22. “He wanted to do it, told Stephen, and we kind of got out of his way,” Licht says, adding that the old Colbert character could return to “Late Show” once in a blue moon. “It’s a tool in the toolbox. I would not look for an appearance once a week or anything like that.”

The live convention stunts place burdens on production. Writers were crafting monologues with just minutes to go before Meyers, Colbert, and the rest hit the stage. Trump’s mammoth acceptance speech last Thursday dragged on far longer than expected, meaning the networks had to delay showtimes. Indeed, NBC’s “Late Night” didn’t get started until about 1:20 a.m. eastern. (Meyers’ show normally tapes in the early evening and airs at 12:35 a.m.). Maher was supposed to start at 11 p.m. eastern on July 21, but didn’t want his show to run opposite the candidate’s speech; HBO filled the time with a repeat of his regular program. Comedy Central aired episodes of “South Park” until the time was right for a live broadcast of “Daily Show.”

Meanwhile, there are standards to maintain. Meyers did a scripted bit about uttering profane words on live TV, mixing words like “duck” and “peacock” with others less acceptable in family conversation. Because it was rehearsed, and an audio engineer knew when to bleep things out, producer Shoemaker didn’t see the need for a five-second delay for the broadcast. But in the end he was glad he took one: Leslie Jones, one of the guests, let a swear word fly during her time with the host.

At “Late Night,” the delays from Trump meant keeping an audience entertained until well past the show’s normal air time — even with a dance contest. When all was said and done, “Late Night” could have been called “Can’t Sleep.” Things shut down around 2:20 a.m. “We knew we’d be on late,” said Shoemaker. “We didn’t know we’d be on that late.”

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