The formula for success on big late-night network television shows used to be simple. Keep it light, keep it moving and book a major star, preferably one in the news.
Now, with impeachment in the air and the 2020 presidential campaign underway, the shows that do best are the ones that do not shy away from politics — and the guests who deliver big ratings are political figures and news commentators.
“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on CBS, the most-viewed late-night host since 2017, had one of its biggest episodes of the year recently, when the first guest was MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.
In a less fraught time, a journalist discussing the news of the day would not be much of a ratings winner, but 4.6 million people watched the “Late Show” episode in which Maddow and Colbert talked about President Donald Trump, Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry, according to Nielsen.
That was more than the combined audience for that night’s episodes of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” (with Joaquin Phoenix as the lead guest) and NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (with Lin-Manuel Miranda). Colbert, who became the highest-rated late-night host only after he committed to packing his opening monologues with commentary on the Trump presidency, spoke with Maddow for three segments.
Before Trump became president, an entertainment star in the guest chair was much more likely to get a bigger audience than a commentator or candidate, according to Rob Burnett, an executive producer for “The Late Show” when David Letterman was its host.
“We usually booked politicians and pundits every few months, when there was something newsworthy,” Burnett said. “Now there is something newsworthy 11 times a day.”
News anchors made appearances on Letterman’s show, he added, but often because “they were in the building, or they were in New York, and we were stuck and we had a cancellation. Bookings of newscasters were desperation moves.”
Fallon has had an on-again, off-again approach to making “The Tonight Show” politically engaged. In June, he took his program live after the Democratic presidential debate that was broadcast by NBC. For the most part, though, he has made his show a refuge from stormy news cycles, playing “shouting charades” with Amy Poehler, “Mad Lib theater” with Natalie Portman and “name that song” with Taylor Swift.
Fallon once had a commanding lead among adult viewers under age 50, the demographic prized by advertisers. Now he is tied with Colbert in that segment. For one week last month, he fell into third place among total viewers.
In a late-night environment that favors news, CNN anchor Jake Tapper has become a sought-after booking. “It’s definitely unusual,” Tapper said. “Previously, it would require some sort of hook. You know, I wrote a book about Afghanistan, or I was moderating a debate. Now they call randomly and want me to simply talk the news of the day.”
Chris Licht, a former CBS News producer who became executive producer of Colbert’s show in 2016, said late-night viewers these days wanted shows that helped them make sense of a world in turmoil. “They don’t want escapism,” he said.
Colbert struggled in the ratings during his first 1 1/2 years as host of a network show, which he inherited in 2015. It took off when he started emphasizing the news, with many of his jokes targeting Trump. Last week, CBS signed Colbert to a new deal to keep him as host of “The Late Show” through 2023.
Colbert also trounced the competition the night before the Maddow interview, attracting 4.5 million viewers with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. The audience for that episode, too, was greater than the combined total for the shows hosted by Fallon and Kimmel.
In the 11 o’clock time slot, the politics-heavy “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, hosted by Trevor Noah, regularly beats its TBS competitor, the mostly Trump-free “Conan.” But even Conan O’Brien has adjusted to the new landscape, selecting shoot locations for his occasional travel show, “Conan Without Borders,” based on news events.
O’Brien took the program to Haiti after Trump disparaged that country, speaking with schoolchildren there about how the presidential insult made them feel. More recently, he traveled with his camera crew to Greenland after Trump floated the idea of buying it.
In addition to providing a ratings boon, an emphasis on politics wins accolades. HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” a show that is as much journalism as it is comedy, has won the Emmy for outstanding variety talk series four years in a row. And with the 2020 campaign heating up, presidential candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have all made the late-night rounds.
“If you’re a candidate now and you’re not on one of these shows or discussed by one of these hosts, you are not alive,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant.
Hollywood stars are still staples of late night. “If I could have Tom Hanks every night, I would get him,” Licht said. Will Smith scored 3.9 million viewers for his recent appearance on Colbert’s show, and James Corden, host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” has lately led the 12:30 a.m. time slot in total viewers with a program that often has the feel of a celebrity clubhouse.
But Corden’s rival Seth Meyers, host of NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” drew more total viewers in the 2018-19 season thanks to a formula that had him devoting the first 20 minutes of his show to the latest on Trump. Meyers also led among adult viewers under 50 last season, and he remains the leader among that segment of the audience.
In this supercharged news environment, anchors like Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, both of Fox News, have been late-night guests, as have CBS News stalwarts Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. When King and O’Donnell were lead guests on Colbert’s live show after the State of the Union address in February, they drew an audience of 4.6 million.
Jay Sures, a co-president of the United Talent Agency, which represents many news anchors, said he had noticed a spike in bookings for his clients. “They’ve unintentionally become celebrities based on how the news business has become part of our daily routine in a way it never has before,” he said. “The Trump era has elevated news.”
Burnett, the former producer for Letterman, agreed. “As a rule, we weren’t trying to book politicians or pundits,” he said. “You were trying to book things that your audience cared about. Back then, people did not care about politics to the extent that they do now.”
As Tapper put it: “It’s a reflection of people just being incredibly engaged and fascinated and focused and horrified on everything going on in Washington. It’s definitely a new world.”