After Letterman, a more social late night TV

After Letterman, a more social late night TV
David Letterman's retirement from CBS comes as social media changes the idea of late night TV. (Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Wikimedia Commons under CC)

Next week, David Letterman will retire from television, after a 33 year career that saw the creation of two late night TV franchises, NBC’s Late Night and CBS’ Late Show. Letterman will have been hosting the Late Show for 22 years on May 20, with 11 years of his career being spent at NBC, leaving after the controversy regarding Jay Leno being appointed to replace Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show.

But as Letterman retires, a new chapter in late night television is emerging, where social media and the internet are becoming the norm, and more people flock to the internet to watch clips of segments, instead of staying up to watch the program itself. While new audiences are forthcoming, those in late night are trying to figure out how to make their programs work as viewer habits change in the digital age. No more waiting until 10:35 to watch the program, where they can be available to watch on YouTube at 9:05 the next morning.

“People are just plucking your greatest hits, without having to sit through the rest of the show,” said Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, in an interview with The New York Times. “There’s more focus on singles than on albums.”

Jimmy Fallon, whose Tonight Show is the most popular and social savvy of the late night programs. (Photo: Montclair Film Festival/Wikimedia Commons under CC)

Jimmy Fallon, whose Tonight Show is the most popular and social savvy of the late night programs.
(Photo: Montclair Film Festival/Wikimedia Commons under CC)

Kimmel, whose program’s bits include Mean Tweets as well as interviews draw new audiences on YouTube, said YouTube had given another indication of what had worked and what did not. He says it was not beneficial to reinvent an entire program, but little segments can be, and internet views did have influence.

“I don’t know that we would have been aware of how successful or popular those bits would be, until YouTube and the Internet reinforced that for us,” Kimmel said. “Ratings are one thing – they’re an estimate. But with YouTube, you can look at the numbers. You can see exactly how many people watch something. We learned what resonates, and we started doing more of it.”

At the helm of social’s influence on late night is Jimmy Fallon, whose Tonight Show has been able to maintain healthy broadcast ratings in addition to internet traffic. A report from the Times indicates that the Tonight Show gets nearly 4 million viewers, while Kimmel and Letterman get 2.7 million viewers, but segments including Lip Sync Battle and other celebrity cameo appearances are known to generate further interest beyond the traditional show.

However, in spite of the nature of social media and YouTube, and videos going viral, internet reach is not the main goal, according to James Corden, who presents the Late Late Show on CBS, the program that follows Letterman. Corden, also speaking to the Times, says its all about what you can do in that hour.

“It’s a weird thing, this idea of things going viral,” Corden said. “You cannot be chasing that, because it’s futile. On our show, all we try and do is go: Who’s on the show? What’s the most fun thing we can do tonight? And in that respect, it’s no different than what anyone making a successful late night show has tried to do.”

As Letterman prepares to retire, and as Stephen Colbert prepares to take over the Late Show in September, social media is leading a revolution in one of television’s signature time offerings, leaving networks wondering how to perfect the balance between the social audience and the audience watching live after the news.

“There’s really no reason to watch a television anymore,” Kimmel said. “For somebody who’s a content creator, that’s a very positive thing. For somebody that owns a huge television network, it’s probably not such a positive thing.”

Editor’s note: A Cuppa Social has put in a request for an interview with someone who looks after social media for the Tonight Show. We hope to bring that to you during the week.

Leave a comment