2015 was a pivotal year for late-night TV. After 33 years as the host of The Late Show, David Letterman signed off for the last time, leaving the reins to the real Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart left his beloved The Daily Show in the hands of South African comedian Trevor Noah. Considering that since the beginning of 2014 late-night TV has also seen James Corden succeed Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show, Jimmy Fallon take over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, Seth Meyers promoted to Late Night, Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show slide into the void left by The Colbert Report, and John Oliver launch Last Week Tonight, the scene has clearly undergone a massive shakeup in a tiny amount of time relative to its history.
Of the most notable late-night programs, only Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Real Time with Bill Maher have had their hosts stay put throughout this changing of the guard. Whether it was by fatigue from viewers, networks, or the hosts themselves, the turnover all happened at once, and the timing wasn't a coincidence. The way people consume TV has changed dramatically in the past five or so years, with people increasingly favoring recorded or streamed-TV viewing that works around their own schedule, and many cutting ties with their cable providers altogether.
Because of the topical nature of late-night shows — which draw a large chunk of their humor from commenting on culture, politics, sports, and other current events — they've actually been one of the few types of programs to hold onto their live audiences. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, 81 percent of Tonight Show viewers watch the show live while 92 percent watch Kimmel live. Aside from live events like sports and award ceremonies, the top-performing late night shows are arguably the most essential TV to catch exactly while it's actually happening. Given the fragmented way we watch TV today, that's an impressive feat.
Of course, those same top shows have also been the most successful in aggressively building a social presence to feed that morning-after conversation cycle. The way Tonight, Kimmel, and Late Show set up their hour-long programs is increasingly conducive to easy repackaging via highlights on YouTube and the like. From both an awareness and advertising standpoint, it makes sense to have a bunch of hard-hitting three-to-five-minute bits that can easily be picked up by various publications the next day the second they're uploaded to YouTube. Racking up those online views is now just as if not more important than pulling in live viewers — it's where the key 18-34-year-old demographic loves to live. Late-night TV, of course, aims to get older viewers as well, but you've always got to be positioned well for the future.
Speaking of building for the future: as evidenced by the slightly tone-deaf (or blind) cover photo on Vanity Fair's feature "Why Late-Night Television Is Better Than Ever," diversity among the titans of late-night is still mostly nonexistent. That doesn't mean these guys are any less funny or brilliant, but it does accurately reflect how incredibly male-dominated this corner of the TV world, and really Hollywood in general, still are. In 2015, it's a shocking status quo.
Late night TV has smartly evolved to cater to younger viewers and their preference for consuming content in easily digestible bits online. Moving forward, though, it'll have to keep fragmenting itself to adequately satisfy other diversity variables besides just age — gender, race, sexual orientation, and beyond. It's undoubtedly very difficult to make a variety show that's both mainstream and clever enough on a micro level to speak meaningfully to various niches, but that's the new normal. The more the Internet itself evolves, the more voice it gives to minority demographics who yearn for accurate representation in entertainment and media.
How exactly late-night TV will adapt once again is unclear, but as evidenced by the huge host turnover and movement online over the past two years, it's at least aware of the need to be flexible.
Cover image: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon via YouTube