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The future of late night talk shows is…Well, there may not be one

The future of late night talk shows is questionable. These past weeks it has been announced that Trevor Noah is leaving “The Daily Show” next year. James Corden, the host of CBS’s “The Late Late Show,” will depart his show at the same time and TBS has cancelled “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” by the end of this year.

For decades, late-night shows have been an enormously successful franchise for network television. The costs of the shows were relatively low, and the number of programming hours they offered, as well as the profits they kicked off, were enormous. This is particularly true for the United States but also relevant in the UK where shows like The Graham Norton Show, The Jonathan Ross Show and Later with Jools Holland are almost national institutions in their own right. 

However, and this may sound harsh, but the generations consuming television shows are reducing by the minute. The younger people are the less likely they are to consume television. As a Gen Zer, if I look at my fellow Gen Z and millennial peers, you’d rarely find a television cable in our homes. We purchase televisions for streaming and gaming, sure, but do any of actually sit down to watch the news at 10? We sure don’t. 

The talk show format in itself also feels slightly dated. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have taken a crack at talk shows, but with little success. Netflix tried to give shows to hosts like Chelsea Handler, Hasan Minhaj, Michelle Wolf and Joel McHale. All of them were cancelled, and Netflix executives have moved on from the format. Likewise, Hulu attempted a talk show with Sarah Silverman, which was cancelled after 21 episodes. Jon Stewart has a show on Apple TV+, which  struggled to garner much attention during its first season. The shows — whether through an opening monologue or an interview with a celebrity who has a movie premiering soon — depend on topicality, something that has not quite translated to streaming.

“It’s a weird transition time,” said Gavin Purcell, a former showrunner of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” “There’s nothing about this that feels normal for the late-night world.”

Viewers used to have a “deep bond” with late-night hosts, said Rob Burnett, the former executive producer for “The Late Show With David Letterman,” in part because there was little else to watch at that hour. “I do not think that will ever exist again,” he said.

Furthermore, revenue has fallen for the late-night shows. Through the first six months of 2021, the four late-night shows on US network television took in a total of $301 million in advertising revenue, according to Kantar. Through the first six months of this year, that figure has fallen to $253.6 million, a 16 percent drop. Seth Meyers’s show generated $24.6 million in advertising revenue through the first six months of 2021. 

Conan O’Brien, a late-night host for nearly three decades, is an example of a host who has turned to a different medium – podcasting – to find future success. O’Brien saw his audience figures falling each year before leaving his TBS late-night show last year but his company recently sold his podcasting company to SiriusXM. Jeff Ross, Mr. O’Brien’s longtime executive producer, said, in their nearly three decades in late night, “we saw a lot of changes.”

In regards to the future of late night shows, many executives including Gavin Purcell, former “Tonight Show” showrunner, feel that these shows do indeed still have a future but it is the current growing pains in TV formatting, “the broadcast TV model going away” which is “what is stopping people from watching them as much.”

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