It’s official. Variety has reported that Jimmy Fallon has been dethroned as King of late night by Stephen Colbert. While Fallon remains strongest with the key 18-49 demographic, Colbert’s Late Show has stormed ahead in overall numbers, something that seemed impossible only a year ago when Colbert was the subject of gossip over being replaced by fellow network host James Corden. We’ve written before about the hair ruffling route of Fallon’s downfall, and the recent New York Times profile that may have been intended as a sympathy tour but fell flat. The chances are that Fallon will be okay for the time being. The kids still like him, Lorne Michaels has his back, and NBC can rely on Seth Meyers for their late-night satire quota.
What hasn’t been covered is another late-night race Fallon has begun to stumble in, partly because it’s not really a late-night matter. YouTube views have become just as important as the live numbers, perhaps even more so due to their ability to reach an international audience and the shifting strategies of the network model. Peak TV, with its seemingly limitless options and expansion of platforms, means those coveted demographics are less likely to stay up and watch the talk shows (or fall asleep on the couch with a network channel on rather than Netflix). That means getting creative, from cringe-inducing social media campaigns to the good old (new?) viral video.
Since its inception, Fallon’s tenure on The Tonight Show has been leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in terms of making an impact online. Indeed, his entire show seems tailor-made to be cut up into easily digestible chunks and linked to on your auntie’s Facebook page. With an eye-watering subscriber count sitting at over 13.6m users, Fallon, in theory, has a captive audience of young people (YouTube’s most popular demographic) ready to be entertained with children’s party games, sing-alongs, and publicist sanctioned buffoonery.
The five most viewed videos on his channel are all of a similar breed - Ariana Grande and Christina Aguilera doing musical impressions (combined total of 164,569,039 views); Emma Stone’s lip sync battle before that show became its own torrid spin-off (81,752,397 views); Daniel Radcliffe doing Alphabet Aerobics (73,721,012 views); and Jimmy on a roller coaster with Kevin Heart (66,591,775 views). You do the maths on those numbers. We as a culture are bound by few common elements, but watching celebrities do silly things is one of them.
The formula is key: Big name celebrities plus relatable party games with a skillful edge, all wrapped up in escapist fluff. It’s no surprise that this much-imitated strategy - I’m looking at you, James Corden - comes from a former SNL alum, particularly one known for his own musical impressions. What’s most striking about these videos is how little Fallon himself appears. He steps back and lets the stars do the work, although he’s always in frame, reminding you of whose show this is. With the Radcliffe rap, he watches from behind, enraptured and gurning for his life; he’s front and centre with Adele in her classroom instruments sing-along with The Roots; he’s in lazy drag screaming “ewww” with will.i.am. Even in the one exclusively interview-style clip with over 35m views (the Nicole Kidman interview where she revealed Fallon blew a chance to date her), it’s all about him. It’s a perpetual series of SNL skits, but with even more corpsing (“breaking” for our US readers).
It’s also notable how absent politics is from his most viewed videos. Michelle Obama doing Mom Dancing with Fallon has over 25m views, but it’s hardly shop talk. A skit with Donald Trump interviewing himself in the mirror (Fallon in costume) has over 20m hits, while an awkward skit of Obama calling Trump with some advice has over 17m hits, yet it’s clear that’s not what his audience wanted. Or at least, it’s not what his audience wanted at the time. None of his top 30 most viewed videos are from the past twelve months. The most recent video of Fallon’s to pass 1m views was political, focusing on an interview with The Rock and his much-rumoured Presidential hopes. It’s not that Fallon’s YouTube numbers are necessarily bad, but in the face of more strident and urgent competition both on and off the air, it’s notable how those demographics are shifting.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is a couple of years behind Fallon’s channel in terms of numbers, with only 2.6m subscribers to their name. When Colbert started hosting, you could see the ways the show tried to replicate the Fallon mould of viral content. They released cute videos leading up to the show’s release, did some similar skits and had guests do adorably wacky feats for the clicks. It was obvious that this wasn’t Colbert’s wheelhouse, nor was it what viewers wanted. Even in the wobblier days of the show’s inception, people turned to those political moments, like the wonderful Joe Biden interview or the less wonderful Ted Cruz one. Perhaps people just missed the Colbert of truthiness, or couldn’t shake their expectations of who Colbert was and how he should host a late-night show. It’s certainly understandable that such a weight on his shoulder, not just from viewers but CBS, could be restricting for him. In those early days, you get the sense that Colbert is keen to stop being that person and all that entails - that authoritative voice of comedic leadership during tough political times, more so now that Jon Stewart isn’t on the air. Yet when the tides turned and viewers hungered for that, he delivered, and it’s reflected in those YouTube views.
Of Colbert’s 20 most viewed videos, 16 are political in theme, from that awful Trump interview to Laura Benanti’s spot-on Melania impression to Colbert helping President Obama with his résumé to the return of Stewart himself. What’s most striking here is how Colbert is the heart of basically all these videos. Not only is he more actively involved as an interviewer - a skill he possesses in droves compared to Fallon - he is also viewed more for his monologues. Viewers are turning to him, his voice and his opinions on the most pressing and petrifying news of the hour. Colbert is definitively against Trump, there’s no hiding that in his act, and the fans are flocking to him. As of the writing of this post, Fallon’s most recent ten videos had a combined 935,894 views. For Colbert’s ten, he had 1,039,922 views. Fallon’s most viewed video didn’t even feature him (it’s a clip of Demi Lovato performing), while Colbert’s top spot came from a monologue on Trump’s budget.
Late night is a wildly different game from the heady days of the Leno-Letterman feud. There are more late night options than ever before - although almost all of them are still straight white men - and the concept of “essential viewing” has lost much of its power. There’s never going to be another Jon Stewart, for example, because there’s less hunger for that leader-style comedic voice, especially one from such a narrow pool of diversity. With the game changing, the online battle has amped up to bigger levels: Who can reach the widest audience and what message do they use to do that?
Often overlooked in the new late night battles is the rise of Trevor Noah. The ratings for his tenure on The Daily Show are growing, and his online presence is increasingly savvy. Last week was his most watched week ever, and his cut of the 18-49 audience is 18% higher than last year. Comedy Central have been savvy in making their show reach as wide an international audience as possible, not by making the content universal but by specifying it to particular regions. Noah’s show is now watched in 176 countries, up from around 70 before, and, as noted by Uproxx, tapings will film segments meant for worldwide audiences. This obviously fits with the sensibilities of having a South African host for what’s usually seen as an American satirical show, and the numbers speak for themselves. On Comedy Central’s UK YouTube channel, the past 5 clips from The Daily Show have a staggering 1,834,369 views. On the show’s own channels, the most recent 5 clips have over 2.8m views. The hunger for satire is most certainly alive and well, and Noah knows that’s universal.
Other late-night hosts use their online presence for varying purposes - Conan O’Brien has tailored much of his show to an internet specific geek audience with video game Lets-Plays and Comic Con footage; Jimmy Kimmel keeps a sardonic edge but isn’t afraid to get political or sincere, and James Corden’s just perfected the Fallon mould, but his foreignness allows him to escape accusations of avoiding serious topics. Fallon’s network buddy Seth Meyers avoids silly skits almost entirely, and his most viewed videos are concise, detailed and easily digestible takes on the latest politics and news, ideal for explaining to that one stubborn relative why taking away your healthcare and letting everyone die in the street is a bad idea.
None of this is to say that Fallon is in danger of becoming irrelevant or unwatched. There will always be a need and a desire for frothy escapades and celebrity silliness as pleasant distractions. The issue is that, as demonstrated by Fallon’s profile in the New York Times, he doesn’t seem to understand why such frivolities could be considered lightweight or distracting in this new age. As the heat is turned up and NBC will undoubtedly put the pressure on Fallon to get his numbers back up over Colbert’s, it will be interesting to see if his online strategy changes, and more politics enters his scope. He has already said that he’s not a political comedian, but if the clicks aren’t coming, perhaps he’ll change his tune.