Presenters leaving, viewers switching off... why US talkshows are past their prime

With hosts such as James Corden and Trevor Noah departing, and revenue declining, a 70-year-old late-night TV format is in turmoil

For 70 years, the TV talkshow has followed a format: a host behind a desk and a set of cushioned chairs for guests, a mug, maybe a potted plant, and a location-indicating backdrop. From Dick Cavett to Johnny Carson, and on through to James Corden, the programmes have been a nightly ritual for millions.

But some are warning of a rupture: the shows are losing viewers, revenue is declining, and hosts are leaving. And that has prompted the TV industry to ask itself if a bond with viewers has been broken and others, presumably late into the evening, to worry about the very future of the late-night talkshow.

“I do not think that will ever exist again,” Rob Burnett, the former executive producer for The Late Show With David Letterman, told the New York Times last week.

Others have wondered if turmoil in the sector – in the US, Trevor Noah, James Corden and Samantha Bee are all leaving their posts, and TV executives are reportedly mulling using the time slots for other fare – is a sign of some deeper conversational malaise. Executives at CBS have said that when Corden leaves, the show “will not be a replica of what’s come before it”.

Idris Elba meets Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show in August
Idris Elba meets Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show in August.
Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Robert Thompson, trustee professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University, says it’s premature to call time on the genre. “If it does go away, I think we’ll be poorer for it. Since the turn of the century, late-night comedy has become an important part of the civic conversation in a republic.”

Jon Stewart, host of satirical Daily Show from 1999 to 2015, was able to do things in a comic mode that news organisations should have been doing in a journalistic mode, says Thompson. “Bringing the clips together, showing the contradictions, putting them in clear juxtapositions – it was being done in comedy better than it was being done in journalism,” he said. More recently, Stewart’s lead was picked up by Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert.

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah
The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah is leaving the programme next year. Photograph: David Buchan/REX/Shutterstock

All are a long way from the traditional talkshow – three people and a host sitting around having a conversation, with the success of the nightly instalment dependent on the mix of guests. “Nowadays, the monologue has become the dominant form and the conversations are one-on-one,” says Thompson.

But the aspect of political comedy, depending on the affiliation of the viewer, may have changed over the past couple of years. All four of the network late-night hosts picked up Joe Biden’s recent gaffe when he miscounted by saying: “Let me start off with two words: Made in America” at a Volvo powertrain factory in Maryland.

“The Trump period, starting with the escalator ride and continuing now, was such a bonanza for comedians because there was so much to do,” says Thompson. “We’re in a comedy cycle where there are so many jokes that have to be told that it almost gets repetitive.

“Late-night comedy can’t depend on always being true to the political perspective of the people who are in front of or behind the camera,” he adds. “When the Bill Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky thing came up, comedians could not protect their party on that. There are still comedians who believe that when they die and go to heaven, Bill Clinton will still be president up there.”

In fact, comedians may not have had time to recalibrate post-Trump, so rich was the ground he sowed – until it wasn’t. “It was like in agriculture when regions put all their resources into one crop, then the weevil would kill that crop. When the comic weevil attacks that crop, all of a sudden there’s not a lot out there,” Thompson says.

If that’s left network comedians scrambling, some viewers have turned to Greg Gutfeld’s Gutfeld! on Fox News, a relatively traditional discussion format with liberals as its target of preference and audience figures that are frequently higher than the typical network shows.

And when comedians do offer comedy, it’s sometimes at their own expense. Last week Corden was called out for pulling what appeared to be a normal Los Angeles celebrity power-move at a New York restaurant by apparently being unpleasant to staff.

Restaurateur Keith McNally wrote in an Instagram post that he had banned Corden as a customer, calling him “the most abusive customer to my Balthazar servers since the restaurant opened 25 years ago”. The ban was later lifted with the restaurateur apparently accepting the talkshow host’s apology and saying: “Anyone magnanimous enough to apologise … doesn’t deserve to be banned from anywhere.” Corden plans to address the topic on his show on Monday.

If the traditional rules of late-night comedy are changing, and the profits it summons for the networks are diminishing, then that’s in keeping with award shows and primetime – everything in fact except sport, which demands live viewing.

“What happens when television is no longer defined by time slots is a complex question,” says Thompson. “We should not see this as a house of cards tumbling, but the idea of a time slot has become old-fashioned and that has hurt late-night TV and putting the day’s events in a comic perspective.”


Edward Helmore in New York

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