Late Night With .....Does It Matter?

Jay Leno reclaims his throne.  Conan quits in a snit, then resurrects himself on TBS, a network trying to resurrect itself.  George Lopez slides aside, glad to keep his gig. Dave, Jimmy and Craig soldier on as Wanda grabs a niche, and so the late night comedy players – a recurring soap opera - seem to have completed their latest episode.  Who cares?  The networks care, a lot.  Late night can be a cash machine.  The comedian hosts are cheap, until they get established.  Production is cheap – Two cameras, a couch, a few chairs and a desk that doesn't even have drawers.  Writers (sadly) are always cheap.  Guests are free.  Modest revenue can produce big profits without much financial risk, a rarity for the networks these days.

Before we take a closer look, we need to disclose some comedy conflicts.  I do a little stand-up myself, which means I am overexposed to other comics and jaded, but still respectful.  My comedy idol is Bob Newhart (TV shows are OK, but please, sample his stand-up)  My blogging idol is John Stewart, not for his written work, but for his ability to be funny while imparting some useful information, and to do so consistently for many years.

So, does the late night soap opera  matter?  Not for long.  The biggest news in comedy, news and late night talk recently was all at Comedy Central, where John Stewart and Stephen Colbert re-upped with multi-year contract extensions.  The biggest names in late night, Leno, Letterman and Conan are old men playing to old audiences.  The average Leno listener is in the mid 50's, hipster Conan plays to a crowd in the mid 40's.  I'm a sometimes fan of both Letterman and Conan (Wanda and Craig, too), but I'm in the nightmare demographic – old tightwads – and that's the real problem for the late night gang.  Any show that captures even moderately big ratings skews old, and the boomers (and their elders) have money but they don't seem to spend in response to ads like their youngers (youngers? that would be the opposite of elders - still keeping spell check on its toes.)

Meanwhile Stewart, and his spin-off Colbert, have mastered the art of pirating young viewers from both network news and late night talk, twin pillars in what is left of the network business model.  As the audience ages, the old school network news and late night talk will find it can draw ad revenue from the clapper, and not much else (although Lipton and Nestea will remain surprisingly willing to buy spots on Fox News.)  Stewart and his progeny (there will be many in the not too distant future, not just on Comedy Central) will capture the rest of the news/late night talk show viewing base, which, before long, will be everybody under 55.   The networks are taking on a lot of financial risk with big contracts for guys like Leno, but it's Comedy Central that's betting on the sure things.

Photo credit: The Pug Father