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Late-Night TV Has a Growing Problem: Maybe There’s Too Much of It

Analysis: There's nothing humorous about new wee-hours entrants being axed, but the format is crowded with shows that lack broader appeal

Something funny is going on with late-night TV, but it’s not the sort of development that’s going to make anyone laugh.

Netflix’s decision on Friday to cancel programs led by comics Michelle Wolf and Joel McHale, both of which emulated traditional late-night series, marks just the most recent move in a scaling back of the genre. BET in July declined to launch a second season of Robin Thede’s “The Rundown.” And Comedy Central in June axed Jordan Klepper’s “The Opposition,” its latest bid to find a natural follow to its flagship “The Daily Show” (nor has the Viacom network sought to keep the well-received “President Show,” starring Anthony Atamanuik,” in circulation).

The new entrants aren’t the only ones grappling with the place of late-night programming in an era when viewers watch video at their own choosing. Conan O’Brien, TV’s longest-serving late-night personality, is poised to take his hour-long “Conan” on TBS to 30 minutes next year.

And NBC’s “Tonight Show” has this summer been experimenting with “hybrid” Friday broadcasts that meld fresh opening material with repeat interviews from guest celebrities. A similar effort was tested last summer by CBS’s “Late Show,”  highlighting how difficult it has become for wee-hours aficionados to find fresh material on Friday nights. Seth Meyers and James Corden don’t do original Friday broadcasts, and an original Friday is an exception for Jimmy Kimmel rather than the norm. “Daily Show” has long been a four-days-a week effort. Bill Maher continues to hold forth on most Friday evenings via HBO.

Note to Busy Philipps, who is set to launch a new late-night format on E! in late October: The future of experiments in the category may rest on your shoulders. At a time of  “Peak TV,” we may be seeing “Peak Late Night” too.

Perhaps the current state of late night should come as no surprise. After all, the format has been enjoying something of a boom – and not all of it has come from the surge experienced by many of the shows as they tilt at the Donald Trump-dominated news cycle.

HBO carved out more attention for late-night comedy on Sundays when it launched John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” in April 2014 (as did Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” when Andy Cohen debuted a Sunday night show in 2009). Samantha Bee did something even more radical in February 2016 when she kicked off “Full Frontal” on TBS. (Her show is considered part of the late-night set even though it airs well within a time slot considered to be primetime.) Much of this activity was fueled by the late-night-host hopscotch that jumped off in the wake of the retirements of Jay Leno from NBC’s “Tonight Show” in 2014 and David Letterman from CBS’ “Late Show” in May 2015, not to mention ABC’s decision to move Kimmel ahead of “Nightline” in January 2013.

But the history of late-night is filled with less successful efforts to join the fray: For every Arsenio Hall, there has been a Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers or Chevy Chase. Still, more keep jumping aboard. Showtime is developing a weekly late-night series with Desus Nice and The Kid Mero. HBO ordered a second season of Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas,” as did Hulu with Sarah Silverman’s “I Love You America,” which will launch its sophomore effort in September.  Even Netflix has more in the works, with a series from Hasan Minhaj.

But late-night’s bull market might be nearing its cyclical end. It’s easy to blame Netflix’s unorthodox structure for the late-night pullback. The SVOD service has gotten viewers hooked on binge-watching, but there’s little proof it can force viewers to tune in to a genre that is timely, not timeless.

CBS, ABC and NBC earmark precious minutes of their schedule every day to promos that bark out the latest guests on each evening’s latenight broadcasts, and with very good reason. Everything on these shows has got a sell-by date nearly concurrent with the moment it’s conceived. Stephen Colbert’s monologues, Jimmy Fallon’s antics, Jimmy Kimmel’s pranks, and Seth Meyers’ “Closer Look” segments riff off the latest headlines. Within 24 hours, they move from fresh to stale. And while one may see a Colbert promo during “NCIS” or a Fallon alert during “This Is Us,” a Netflix user would be hard-pressed to recall an urgent message showing up during a binge-view of “All About The Washingtons” reminding them of see-it-or-miss-out material from Wolf or McHale.

But there’s something else playing a role in late-night retrenchment. With audiences splintering around a dizzying array of hosts, video entertainment options, viewing behaviors, and even political leanings, many of the new efforts aim for fragments of the audience, not the bigger field. Johnny Carson had to be all things to all people; Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah do not. Nor do they want to be.

To hook viewers in the future, perhaps the hosts and the networks should try to grab more of them, rather than merely aiming for the niche or demographic most likely to align with their particular brand of comedy. There are some recent signals – a musical guest on Samantha Bee, a T-Mobile sweepstakes and special Central Park broadcast of Fallon’s “Tonight”, an intensification of efforts to snare hard-line conservative guests for Bill Maher – that the time has come to do more late-night for many, rather than more late-night for a few.

That would make a growing number of people smile – especially the executives who are on the hook to deliver late-night results that make their companies look good in the bright light of day.

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