TV’s late-night comics are finding they don’t need all the usual trappings to get on with their shows.
Even though all the nation’s wee-hours programs are taking a production hiatus due to America’s coronavirus crisis, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, David Spade, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah are putting out monologues, jokes and sketches that – for the most part – aren’t being seen on TV. Colbert’s new segments have been incorporated into CBS’ broadcast of “The Late Show,” where they are being grafted onto repeat segments from earlier shows, and Fallon followed suit on Wednesday evening.
That means late-night TV is, in a fashion and for a time, continuing – without a live in-studio audience, without an announcer, without a live band, and, perhaps most importantly, often without traditional TV commercials.
“It’s so weird without tons of applause and standing O’s,” Spade joked in a video monologue posted via social media. But maybe it’s not.
Just as movie studios are quickly testing new financial models by releasing some films for digital purchase at the same time they would normally appear in theaters, or speeding up the time when movies are available for digital viewing, so too are TV’s late-night hosts grasping at new ways of doing business. They do so at a time when their younger fans – the ones advertisers covet – are more likely to watch them at times of the day other than between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m.
A new generation of video consumers “don’t watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ the way we watch ‘Saturday Night Live,’” said O’Brien, speaking to reporters in 2018 just months before launching a new version of his own TBS program that is just 30 minutes long. Talking to two or three guests and then telling the audience to tune in tomorrow “doesn’t make sense any more,” he said at the time.
This week’s spate of “pop-up” programs helps illustrate that. Fallon kicked off what is expected to be a series of ten-minute “At Home” editions of “Tonight,” that will include a mix of celebrity guests joining via Zoom. He used artwork created by his kids and sang a song about having “four-leaf clovers on my mind and Purell on my hands.” The segment has garnered more than 2.1 million views since it was posted yesterday. A subsequent outing featured a virtual video chat with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Colbert has for the past three nights worked up 20 to 30 minutes of material, doing a monologue from a suds-filled bathtub Monday night and working up a virtual duet with bandleader Jon Batiste on Tuesday. Jimmy Kimmel opened a video last night with graphics drawn by his kids and delivered jokes about hunkering down at home. It has lured nearly 1.9 million views since being posted .
“We made macaroni necklaces yesterday,” Kimmel quipped. “Today I ate them for lunch.”
Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” meanwhile, has released a vignette showing host Trevor Noah cleaning his home – and his food – along with other dispatches and videos. And Conan O’Brien offered a video reminding people to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and wash their hands. He soaked his in Guinness beer, Jameson whiskey and Lucky Charms. On Wednesday, O’Brien announced he would bring his show back to TBS starting March 30, producing it from home with staffers contributing from remote locations.
The debate about whether late-night programs need to be viewed in their traditional time slot has been bubbling for months, particularly as the hosts, writers and producers have ramped up a slew of ancillary pieces of content: jokes posted all day on Twitter; traveling exhibits; Facebook video exchanges and more. Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” often posts its signature “Closer Look” commentary segments on Twitter several hours before the NBC program kicks off at 12:35 in the morning.
The late-night content diaspora comes even though TV networks have seen surges in Madison Avenue’s demand to run ads against Colbert, Fallon, James Corden and others. Jimmy Kimmel makes no secret of his willingness to weave ad messages into the program and Colbert and Fallon have made promotional nods to everyone from FedEx to Google. Moving more of the hosts’ content to other venues threatens to pull their audiences along the way, which would destabilize revenue streams. ““Here you have one of the hottest shows on television where 70% of the views are in an area that we don’t get credit for it,” said NBCUniversal Chairman Steve Burke in February, 2015 about digital viewing of the “Tonight Show.” “That’s not going last forever.”
Five years later, the dynamic continues unabated, And in an effort to wring more money from that digital viewing, NBCUniversal this year announced a plan to stream both “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” via its soon-to-launch Peacock video-on-demand service – hours before either show runs on TV. The novel plan would, in a sense, bring late night to primetime.
Not everyone is thrilled with the idea. TV station owners get a significant amount of revenue from local ads they run after the late local news. Indeed, many of their local news shows tell viewers to stick around for the network’s late-night fare. There are indications NBCU will have to work something out with these stations. In a statement released in February, Pat LaPlatney, the chairman of NBC’s affiliate board and co-CEO of Gray Television, said the group is “working toward a plan that is good for NBCU and provides affiliates the opportunity to meaningfully participate in this business.”
Can the late-night crew keep pumping out the comments and content? Many of the shows had been scheduled to go on hiatus next week anyway. Kimmel told followers last night he intended to post a new video “every day, until we get back from my house, where we are currently incarcerated.”
With each new YouTube monologue and Twitter joke, however, the comics are changing late-night into something that runs all-day.