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Netflix, Hulu Enter Late-Night Fray With Shows From Sarah Silverman, Bill Nye

Late-night comedy shows have flourished in the Donald Trump era. “Saturday Night Live” is enjoying its greatest critical acclaim in years. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon have revived the heyday of late-night ratings wars, with the former edging out the latter in total viewers for the past eight weeks.

But with the rise of shows like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” at HBO and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” at TBS, the field has become crowded. And now Netflix and Hulu are joining the fray — moves that speak to the growing need for streaming services to compete with cable and broadcast rivals on all original-programming fronts.

Hulu last week announced it had picked up “I Love You, America,” a new political-comedy show starring Sarah Silverman. Later this month, Netflix will premiere the second season of its first comedy talk show, Chelsea Handler’s “Chelsea,” and debut “Bill Nye Saves the World,” a celebrity-guest-filled series with the longtime science-TV host.

This follows the November bow of Amazon’s “The Grand Tour,” a motoring and travel show with strong late-night elements — though not overt political humor — from the team behind “Top Gear.”

Speaking to the preponderance of new late-night shows on the streaming services, Katz Media Group’s Stacey Lynn Schulman observed, “More than anything, it’s a comment on the fact that they’re programmers.”

Indeed, while the digital players started as aggregators of content produced for linear networks, they’ve since ventured into producing their own original scripted series. Now, as they look to compete toe-to-toe throughout the MVPD ecosystem, they’re being compelled to expand into formats like reality, stand-up, variety, and talk.

“Moving into something like what has traditionally been a late-night TV show [via] a distribution channel that has no time or scheduling limitations draws a different audience than the typical drama or comedy profile,” Schulman says. “It shows that they’re programming for different audiences with different formats.”

Hulu has some experience with those formats and audiences. The network carries clips from “Saturday Night Live” and several late-night series including NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and has seen viewers gravitate toward that content. Original programming chief Craig Erwich has been looking to launch an original series that could capitalize on that
interest.

“This has been high on our wish list for a long time,” Erwich says. “The problem is you can’t just go out and invent something like this, because there are very few talents like Sarah.”

Silverman met with Hulu just six weeks ago to pitch “I Love You, America,” and the company began an aggressive pursuit of the project. The weekly show will mix studio and field pieces in a way that won’t feel foreign to viewers of “Full Frontal” or “The Daily Show,” but will be rooted in Silverman’s comedy style and experience, for instance, as a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

While shows like Silverman’s — or Hadler’s Netflix series, which this season changes from three nights a week to one — provide additional bait with which to lure subscribers to spend more time watching the service, they also do so at a cost much lower than that of premium scripted series such as Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Netflix’s “The Get Down.” (The latter cost more than $100 million to produce.)

Scripted series on digital have a further hurdle to overcome: A study last month by Katz looking at 2017 Golden Globe-nominated TV shows found that series from Netflix and Amazon typically lagged well behind cable and broadcast shows in viewer awareness. Of those polled, 71% said they had never heard of Netflix’s “The Crown,” compared with just 33% for NBC’s “This Is Us” and 6% for HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

But adding a late-night talk show to the mix — even one on a subscription video service with no late-night peg — could give streamers a marketing hook.

“Once you have late-night talk, you have stars that rotate through it,” Schulman says. “It becomes a promotional vehicle for your content and your stars.”

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