When it comes to late night TV ratings, politics pays off
President Trump is still proving to be a ratings draw, especially when he’s being satirized.
When The New Celebrity Apprentice failed to launch with Arnold Schwarzenegger as its frontman, executive producer and former host Donald Trump wasted no time in gloating about the show’s mediocre ratings via Twitter:
Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got "swamped" (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT. So much for….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2017
being a movie star-and that was season 1 compared to season 14. Now compare him to my season 1. But who cares, he supported Kasich & Hillary
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2017
The 2017 season premiere was down 44 percent from its previous debut, and ratings continued to erode from there. By March, Schwarzenegger had ruled out the possibility of returning for another year of NBC’s reality contest, citing Trump’s involvement as the reason fans switched off. "With Trump being involved in the show people have a bad taste and don’t want to participate as a spectator or as a sponsor or in any other way support the show," he said. "It’s a very divisive period now and I think this show got caught up in all that division."
Trump may or may not have been the reason for the Apprentice’s low approval rating (the aging reality franchise was entering its 15th season and had been off air for two years, so it’s also possible that viewers just moved on with their lives), but the president has undoubtedly helped boost ratings elsewhere — and that’s both a blessing and a curse for NBC.
The network’s beloved late night sketch series, Saturday Night Live, is enjoying its best ratings in 22 years (since the 1994-95 season), according to NBC — thanks in large part to Alec Baldwin’s performance as the POTUS, and Melissa McCarthy’s zeitgeist-dominating cameos as Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
The president has tweeted his disapproval over the show and Baldwin’s impression several times, but unlike Celebrity Apprentice, he can’t take aim at SNL’s ratings.
Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
If anything, the show’s current political focus has become such watercooler TV, Saturday Night Live will air live nationwide for the first time in the show’s history in its last four episodes this season — meaning that west coast viewers won’t be spoiled by rapturous social media reactions from their east coast friends. NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt proudly noted that since the show "is part of the national conversation," the scheduling shift is designed to make sure "everyone is in on the joke at the same time."
NBC even has a plan for after SNL’s traditional season ends; the network has ordered at least four episodes of a Weekend Update spinoff that will air Thursdays at 9 p.m. during the summer, allowing the show to continue to satirize the week’s headlines — which the president makes a lot of.
But an emphasis on politics can be a double-edged sword.
NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers has seen ratings gains of 6 percent, according to Forbes, since the host started tackling Trump with more regularity — and the host frequently goes viral (to the tune of two or three million viewers per video) through his "A Closer Look" segments, in which Meyers takes a deep dive into one of the week’s top stories — often about Trump or his cabinet.
But after years in first place, NBC’s flagship late night series, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (which has always aimed to be more populist than political), has been usurped at the top of the ratings heap by CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Less than a year ago, The Late Show was still struggling to find its voice, and viewers seemed slow to embrace Colbert without the conservative persona he’d popularized on The Daily Show and his eponymous spinoff, The Colbert Report.
The turning point came during Colbert’s live broadcasts from the Republican National Convention last July, which gave the show a 21 percent boost in total viewers week to week, and a 600 percent increase in digital engagement thanks to viral videos like the one below, in which Colbert spoofed Stanley Tucci’s memorable Hunger Games commentator, Caesar Flickerman.
But it wasn’t until after Trump’s inauguration that Colbert finally overtook Fallon (who was criticized during the election campaign for playfully tousling the Republican nominee’s hair) in the ratings.
The curiosity among viewers makes sense, given that Colbert established himself through political satire during Jon Stewart’s Daily Show tenure (and the Late Show host clearly has no compunction about enlisting Stewart to beef up a good bit), while Fallon and fellow competitors Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden are better known for their pop culture riffs and celebrity games than for searing cultural commentary.
The week of March 27 marked the ninth consecutive week that Colbert’s Late Show beat Fallon’s Tonight Show in total viewers, by a margin of 400,000 watchers. That stretch also places Colbert above Fallon for Q1 of 2017 overall, averaging 3.29 million viewers — 260,000 more than Fallon for the period.
Colbert also tied Fallon in the adults 25-24 demographic with a 0.8 rating last week, but is still behind in the advertiser coveted adults 18-49 demographic, where Fallon holds a 0.6 rating versus Colbert’s 0.5.
But total viewers is no small thing — especially for CBS, an older-skewing network that places less emphasis on the 18-49 demo. The winning streak is widely attributed to Colbert’s continued mockery of Trump, and shows no signs of slowing — at least while the President is still making headlines.
In the past seven days, Colbert has managed to make the "Hi Stranger" viral video infinitely more disturbing, in addition to tackling the president’s antagonistic relationship with the media, the removal of internet privacy protections for consumers, the alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, and Trump’s ability to name various types of handymen.
If that’s all in a week’s work, imagine what the next four years will bring. (Or better yet, try not to.)