TV’s Trump Bump Will Give Way to a Slump

TV's Trump Bump Will Give Way
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

There was a time before Donald Trump entered U.S. politics when the prospect of a president exiting office meant a name that dominated the headlines for four or eight years faded fast once it made its way out of the White House.

But there’s no way that’s going to happen this time around. The Trump saga has way too many loose ends to tie up, starting with a Senate impeachment trial in the near future.

While he couldn’t disappear quickly enough to satisfy tens of millions of Americans, one segment of his critics may be quietly happy he’s not going anywhere soon: the practitioners of TV news and late-night TV, who have undoubtedly gotten a ratings boost from obsessing over Trump’s every move dating back to 2016.

If he somehow manages to evade his latest and most egregious scandal — incitement of the riot at the U.S. Capitol building — he may not disappear at all if he wants to keep his profile up in anticipation of another run for the nation’s top job in 2024.

But if he is barred from running again, Trump’s ubiquity would finally decline, though that may not happen until well into 2021 at the earliest at the rate we’re currently going.

Once we get to the place where Trump finally recedes from the headlines, there’s a lot at stake here for the TV news and late-night genres, which lose a singular attraction.

From a news perspective, the beauty of the Trump years was in the constant drama that kept people glued to the tube. Consider the astounding growth in consumption news has experienced over the past five years, going from the fifth most watched genre on TV to the first, from 10% to 20% of total minutes viewed, per Nielsen data. That equates to more than 3 million minutes of national TV watched in 2020, or 160 hours per person.

Rest assured it’s no coincidence that Trump was president for most of that time.

CNN and MSNBC benefited most, with tough reporting that hit Trump hard, delighting the majority of Americans who voted for Biden. Both networks succeeded brilliantly in that regard, but now that makes them vulnerable once the prime focus of their coverage is no longer there.

If they get desperate, there will surely be ways to milk Trump even when he’s long gone from the White House. Nevertheless, they’ll have to be very judicious about that strategy. They know if they offer gratuitous coverage of the president for no other reason than he’s a ratings magnet, they’re going to be heavily criticized. Finding newer right-wing targets — paging Josh Hawley — is probably a wiser tack to take.

Once a bigger ratings draw than its left-leaning rivals, Fox News is in a more interesting predicament. Its primetime audience has taken a serious slide in recent months as its conservative audience seeks out even more right-leaning alternatives like Newsmax or perhaps ducks news entirely given the depressing turn of events of seeing Trump voted out.

While it’s tempting to conclude Fox News is in the beginning stages of a long-term decline, I dismissed that possibility in an earlier column and do so again here even though much has changed since then. Trump’s defenestration from the social media platforms that were his greatest weapon may very well increase his reliance on TV to get attention; the notion that he will start his own media venture still strikes me as a remote possibility. Even were it to launch, that won’t happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the right-leaning news channels will bend over backwards to get Trump on air. Even in its diminished state, Fox News guarantees a much larger audience than its new rivals.

Regardless, a Biden presidency will likely re-energize Fox News much in the way the Trump presidency revitalized CNN and MSNBC.

But unlike TV news, which has become more indispensable than ever amid the pandemic, late-night TV has largely been in a state of decline in recent years. COVID-19 has crippled production, which has not only forced late-night hosts to shoot stripped-down versions of their shows from their own homes but deflated the primetime schedules that are crucial lead-ins for driving audiences to 11:30 p.m. Ratings for these shows, particularly in broadcast, have drooped significantly over the past year in this chart’s comparison of last month’s total viewership versus the same year-ago period.

Which isn’t to say that the late-night incumbents aren’t vulnerable as well. Think about how focused Stephen Colbert in particular is on Trump night in and night out. After initially struggling to find his voice when he started his late-night show on CBS, it was only once Colbert put the president squarely in his crosshairs with real consistency that the ratings took off. When Trump fades out, Colbert is going to find himself without the comedic foil that really invigorate his comedy.

Trump being a juicy target has also fueled an increase in the number of combatants in late-night TV in recent years, thanks to the inexhaustible supply of Trump jokes to be made and the number of streaming services that could provide a platform for them. It’s no longer just the same group of older Caucasian males on broadcast TV networks, either. That world has broadened out to Samantha Bee on TBS, Desus & Mero on Showtime, Amber Ruffin and Larry Wilmore on Peacock.

Listen to a Larry Wilmore podcast from October 2020 here:

Maybe there’s a scenario where all of these market entrants can find new targets to compensate for the loss of Trump, but that seems highly unlikely.

And Joe Biden doesn’t present an enticing alternative to Trump for comedians. The first problem with him as a target is that the best comedy is derived from a sense of outrage, and there are few comedians who don’t personally believe Biden is a welcome replacement for Trump.

Moreover, Biden is stylistically not unlike Barack Obama: a fairly anodyne presence that doesn’t lend itself to sharp jabs or biting satire. If you look at how “Saturday Night Live” has awkwardly tried to tackle Biden this season, between Jim Carrey’s aborted attempt to impersonate him and some poorly received jokes in the “Weekend Update” segment about the new president’s advanced age, it doesn’t bode well for the comedy world.

For both news and comedy, there is also an exhaustion factor to consider. Some journalists and late-night writers have been public about desperately wanting to finally focus on something beyond Trump. But as long as he can find a way to do anything remotely newsworthy, they may not have the luxury of ignoring him. And even if that does come to pass and the ratings start to soften, watch how quickly Trump will come back into focus.

The Trump bump is an addiction that news and comedy have to kick. Until then, expect quite a ratings hangover to set in before the year ends.