Late-night talk shows are one of the most popular television broadcast genres in the United States. Stars like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and John Oliver remain at the forefront of news and comedy and have even transcended the medium to become household names. For many Americans, to see these figures on television every weeknight and trust them to deliver information about the state of the world has become part of a routine. But recently, late-night talk shows have seen a significant dip in ratings, and some of these icons are opting to leave their shows behind.
On Oct. 9, The New York Times released a piece titled “Is There a Future for Late-Night Talk Shows?,” which follows Trevor Noah’s announcement of his plan to leave “The Daily Show” in the coming months. The article cites the various failed attempts of late-night news show spinoffs with hosts like Hasan Minhaj and Michelle Wolf as evidence of the genre’s failure and imminent decline.
The ability of late-night talk shows to remain relevant and profitable is inherently remarkable. With the rise of online streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube as well as paid subscription services like Netflix and Hulu, television in general is seeing a significant downturn in viewership. Despite this, late-night talk shows continue to stand the test of time.
One reason the genre continues to be successful is the adaptability and visibility of its hosts. While traditional news outlets like CNN may have over a dozen pundits on the same broadcast, the vast majority of airtime on late-night talk show broadcasts is dominated by a single host. Whether it be Noah or Colbert, building a show around one charismatic person instead of many unrecognizable consultants creates a deeper connection between the audience, the host, and by extension, the show.
Late-night talk shows are also more easily digestible for young people and the layperson who does not need to know — or frankly does not care — about the minute details of complicated social issues. Still, it is difficult for any viewer to be consistently involved in the political climate without it feeling like a second job or like they never clocked out. So, late-night news broadcasts offer a way for people to feel involved in the political process while receiving some enjoyment from the experience.
But a comedy-based format does have its issues. For one, it allows late-night talk shows to get away with surface-level analyses of important events on the basis that the shows are “just for entertainment.” Late-night shows often try to convey the idea that they are not the traditional news and should not be consumed as such, but even their disclaimers have not stopped many Americans from taking in the shows’ contents as information.
This is not a new phenomenon. Late-night talk shows and news programs have been a pillar in the political commentary community for years, and the implication of their content is evident. In 2008, The New York Times published an article titled “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” that dove into the pitfalls of late-night news. The former host of “The Daily Show” made a point to clarify that the goal of his show was to “entertain, not inform,” but his influence and the influence of other late-night hosts are clearly widespread.
Even politicians have taken notice of the power of late-night talk shows and satirical programs. In a paper by Michael Parkin titled “Taking Late Night Comedy Seriously,” Parkin noted the tendency of presidential hopefuls to “hit the talk show circuit” to secure votes and press. Candidates have deemed appearances on late-night television a valuable use of their time, as an appearance can provide exposure and prove to voters that a candidate is not above showing up on their favorite TV show.
Still, late-night talk shows consistently brand themselves as strictly entertainment, seemingly to elude the moral burden of a traditional news outlet while they continue to reap the publicity that comes from covering major political events. Discussing news-like content while featuring contemporary political figures makes it difficult for viewers to separate the information from the entertainment. The line between news and leisure has become so blurred that many Americans come to late-night talk shows for their sole source of information. Even worse, many don’t feel the need to conduct any additional research on the topics discussed.
It becomes even more difficult to discern the line between news and entertainment when late-night talk show hosts cast aside their promise of strict entertainment and, in admittedly serious times, transform their tone to that of a traditional news program. Following the 2020 presidential election, Colbert of “The Late Show” dropped his lighthearted persona and delivered a sincere, emotional monologue regarding Donald Trump’s refusal to concede to President Joe Biden. While Colbert’s speech was truly moving, his change of pace blurs the line between what is supposedly just entertainment and what should be taken seriously.
But a shift toward the traditional may not be a bad thing for late-night talk shows. Receiving news from a trusted source is important when learning new information, and late-night news hosts have certainly grown the trust of their audience through years of airtime. But what made Colbert’s monologue so impactful is that it revealed a brand new side of him to the audience — a side the audience trusts and feels a connection to, and one that cares about the state of the country and senses the need to speak out. Colbert knew when to transcend his medium and speak against something truly terrifying and threatening to the country. As a result of his reputation and his timing, Colbert delivered a speech more powerful than someone like Anderson Cooper could have.
While late-night talk shows should not be the place to go for strict sources of information, these broadcasts provide a breath of fresh air to political discussions and can serve as a wake-up call in the discourse when need be.