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Late-Night Show Ratings Reveal Complex Relationship With Politics

January 9th, 2019   ||    by Oriana Schwindt

It’s a myth that late-night hosts uniformly shied away from political humor in the past. There’s nothing unique about current late-night shows that take frequent aim at the administration. It’s also a myth that taking an apolitical stance to better appeal to a broader audience leads to higher late-night show ratings.

In fact, we’re seeing the opposite: Late-night shows with hosts that have adopted a critical stance toward the current administration have made big ratings gains against their less political competition. And advertisers responded by pouring $1.1 billion into the late-night broadcast marketplace from November 2017 to November 2018, according to MediaPost.

Colbert vs. Fallon

But the late-night show ratings landscape is more complicated than it seems. Late-night hosts are involved in a war of attrition, where the winners are those who can hold on to the most eyeballs.

The most obvious case is that of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Colbert had a rough start in 2015, and lagged behind NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in both total audience and the critical 18-49 demographic.

Colbert began to catch up, though, in 2016. Not coincidentally, that was when the 2016 presidential election turned fierce, and politics began to feature more prominently in Americans’ daily lives. Colbert leaned into politics, while Fallon leaned away.

Crucially, though, Colbert was only gaining in total viewers—Fallon’s Tonight Show was simply losing more viewers, both in total and in the 18-49 demo. An example: According to TV by the Numbers, as of the week of Nov. 9-13, 2015, the Tonight Show had a season average of a 1.05 demo rating and 3.79 million viewers; Colbert’s Late Show was averaging a 0.78 demo rating and 3.17 million viewers. Fast-forward three years to the week of Nov. 12-16, 2018, and the season averages are looking quite different. Fallon is now at a 0.52 in the demo and 2.37 million viewers. Colbert is at a 0.51 and 3.57 million viewers.

Politics Are Not the Only Factor

Lest you think political content is the only factor at play in late-night show ratings, though, consider the case of the largely apolitical James Corden’s Late Late Show, which in those three years has added about 40,000 total viewers and only dropped about a tenth of a demo point. Seth Meyers’s Late Night, widely hailed by critics and cultural observers for its incisive political commentary, has seen its demo rating shrink by a couple tenths of a point and its total viewership get a haircut of about 200,000. Is this because Meyers is political and Corden is not, or is it merely the effect of a shrinking lead-in for Meyers and a growing one for Corden?

Cable is a different world altogether. Shows like TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show have been political from their very beginnings, and The Daily Show has seen a secular decline over the last few years. One explanation is that these shows have younger audiences in general, which are more and more favoring bite-sized clips on sites like YouTube.

Advertisers have adapted to this trend by pushing for more integrated ads, according to a Variety report. This not only DVR-proofs their ads, but it also makes them portable—YouTube viewers will still see it, adding hundreds of thousands more impressions.

Late-night shows aren’t immune from the same ratings fluctuation that primetime programming is experiencing. The difference seems to be that a host that tackles more political issues can be more of an asset than a liability.

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