The Demise of Late-Night Network Television

August 21, 2012

My Monday morning was met with news of “The Tonight Show’s” demise with the “king” of late night TV taking a pay cut equivalent to 20% of his salary.

As Jeff Bercovici puts it, “When it comes to ratings, Leno still rules the roost, but there aren’t as many chickens to go around as there once were, and the other cocks are circling” (read the entire Forbes article here).

David Letterman with visions of late night TV “sugar plums” dancing through his head.

However, Bercovici’s statement needs a caveat. While Leno still rules the roost, his roost is founded on continuously plummeting ratings. Whether you’re at the top or bottom of the late night food chain, the number of viewers who stay up to catch the “latest” celebrity interview and colorful commentary about today’s news is dwindling.

Could it be that late night television is unable to roll with the times? As we talk about changes in technology and the ways we consume media – whether it relates to magazines, newspapers, or online content– late night television is no longer the primary form of entertainment past 10 p.m.

Today, late night network television fights for market share with cable television, episodes available online via Netflix, iTunes and Hulu, recording devices and highlight clips littering Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. So, in an effort to uncover the late-night preferences of today’s media consumers, I polled some of the ponies and asked about their late-night watching habits. Did we miss anything?

Andrew Miller – “I’ll watch Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, but rarely. I know if I miss a must-see moment in real-time, I can catch it on YouTube or Hulu the next morning. Anymore, Jay Leno and Dave Letterman are utterly unwatchable. There’s just no spontaneity; the questions are so safe and expected. The skits are often the lowest form of humor, dumbed down and digestible. It’s turned into stars and starlets making their 75th television appearance in a week to hawk a new movie, show or album with the same talking points and anecdotes. Late night television was never intended to be such bland hemming and hawing.”


Allison Checco – “Well, I don’t watch late night TV. It’s a waste of my time. I would rather spend time before bed reading, which I enjoy immensely and typically go through a book a week. Also, studies show if you have a computer or TV on before you go to bed, you don’t sleep as soundly as you could (or should) be. And I listen to studies like that.”


Alex Weaver – “Honestly, I don’t watch late night television, ever. After the evening news, I’ll either catch up on my favorite shows via Hulu or my HBO Go iPad app, or else pick up my most current book of choice. I find that network late-night talk show hosts, more often than not, are bland and boring 95% of the time  – the jokes and interviews are tired.

I feel like I could maybe get into watching late night TV for the music performances, but I’m rarely wowed and more likely to discover a new band or live video performance through my usual blogroll… not Letterman or Leno – ie Leno’s musical guest tonight is the band every radio station has already buried  six feet underground, Fun.”


Bob Ingrassia – “I don’t watch late-night TV, either cable or network. Why not? Mainly because I’m a (nearing) middle-age dad with two kids under age 10. But I do watch ‘The Daily Show’ online. I’m not sure about Letterman and the others, but ‘The Daily Show’ makes it a snap to watch full episodes at my convenience.”


Cydney Wuerffel – “Occasionally, I’ll watch late night TV … but ONLY if I’m interested in seeing a certain celeb or band. I’m not a loyalist at all – it’s totally dependent on the talent. I’m much more likely to be watching re-runs of ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Friends.’”


Mike Keliher – “Most of my late-night TV viewing involves viewing programming that is not late-night TV. Other than the occasional Twins or Wild game during the evening, just about the only TV I watch happen “late” at night (around 9 or 10 or so), but the missus and I are often watching recorded programming for earlier in the day, week or even month. ‘Lost,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘American Idol,’ etc.

When we do watch actual late-night television, it tends to be Craig Ferguson because he’s the only one who’s legitimately, regularly funny anymore. The only other thing I regularly watch is ‘The Daily Show,’ but that’s online, usually during the day. I ‘like’ the show’s Facebook page, and that’s my primary vehicle for finding and watching those clips.”


Dave Fransen – “I’m a big fan of late-night TV. I watch three to four things – not consistently, but if I’m home and up, I’ll watch it. I’m a very faithful Letterman watcher. I probably watch Letterman 3-5 times a week. He’s a great broadcaster. Sure he’s funny, but he knows how to tap into what people are interested in hearing and conducts a pretty decent interview.

I love ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report.’ The writing for them is out-of-this-world. There is no comparison anywhere on TV, it’s funny… but smart funny. Cable TV can talk about touchier topics than network TV, but not just in terms of dirty or racy. They can get away with smarter humor (ex. politics) because the expectation for MILLIONS of viewers isn’t there. They are free (or more free) to talk about things that don’t necessarily attract a MASS audience.