The “late night” wars are on again. There was a time in America where the ratings battle for late night was the Stanley Cup of TV, the most coveted award in the industry. Carson and Letterman went head to head. Then Letterman and Leno … But when David and Jay left their respective seats behind their respective desks, the battle for keeper of the late-night conversation was a free for all. One name after another tried to make the grade.
In the meantime, the way people watched TV changed. Not only did the internet leech millions away from late night shows, some of the key demos pretty much quit watching network TV completely. Then came the incursion of the late-night cable show. First, The Daily Show, then The Colbert Report stole eyes and ratings.
Meanwhile, two Jimmies – Kimmel and Fallon – took on the big task of taking over network late night. Both had their own style and built their own audience, in part because both veteran funny men understood how to use social media to build their base.
For a while, then, Jimmy Fallon ruled prime time from his spot on NBC. He created memorable bits, bringing on friends and creating segments fans went gaga for. Just as he took his place as the king of late night, Comedy Central experienced an exodus. John Stewart retired from The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert was tapped to take over the Late Show on CBS.
Colbert and Fallon went after audiences, though not after each other. Each had a built-in fan base and their own style that appealed to a certain demo. Neither was pulling Carson or Letterman numbers, but those days are likely over for TV. Each one flirted with three million viewers, and now, for the first time ever, Colbert actually got closer to that than Fallon, 2.77 million to Fallon’s 2.76. The margin was so razor thin that the network didn’t even really celebrate their first win.
And that lack of an end zone dance shows the proper dose of reality. Colbert’s show only won two out of five nights on that fateful week. Even more, telling is what may have put The Late Show over the top. Thursday of that winning week, Stewart showed up for a mini-reunion with his former Comedy Central buddy, during which he offered a soon-to-be-viral impersonation of President Donald Trump.
One of the more interesting developments is how the late-night demographics are splitting. Fallon owns the youth vote … those who are still watching TV that is. Colbert’s producers, understanding this, have moved to a more topical format, which appeals to an older demographic and has earned him more viewers.
Regardless of the reasons, though, it does appear that NBC and CBS have the makings of a new late night ratings war, and that could be good for TV overall.