Peak TV and Peak Politics
Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel's recent habit of substituting political diatribes for his opening monologue—which, to be fair, is no great loss—is a sign that late-night talk show hosts have decided to get more political.
The first time around, when Kimmel used his son's illness as an excuse to wade cluelessly into the political debate over an Obamacare reform bill, seemed like it might be a one-off on an issue where he was emotionally invested (even if emotion still isn't substitute for knowledge and clear thinking). But then we found out that he gets his health care talking points from Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, which gives this a little more of an air of calculation. Now, after his latest rant about the shooting in Las Vegas, and the spectacle of other late-night hosts following suit—all met with pathetic fanboying from DC journalists—it is becoming a pattern.
The full Jimmy Kimmel monologue from last night. Wowza.https://t.co/S7tK4LYM8f
— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) October 3, 2017
As The Federalist's David Marcus explained recently, Democrats are becoming the party of the celebrity sockpuppet.
In totally unrelated news, viewership of late-night talk shows is steadily declining.
Jon Stewart spin-off Stephen Colbert has clawed his way to the lead of the pack with a nightly audience just a bit over 3 million. But that's a pale shadow of what late night used to be. Back in the day, Jay Leno regularly pulled in 6 million viewers and sometimes more than 10 million.
So maybe these two phenomena are related—but perhaps not in the way you're thinking. Maybe viewership is declining because late-night talk show hosts have become more political (and less funny). Or maybe the hosts are getting more political because their viewership is declining.
Don't underestimate the shattering impact of technology on the entertainment industry, even technology that doesn't seem revolutionary any more, like the digital video recorder. I can remember the last time I watched the late night TV shows, and do you know why I watched them? Because that's what was on at 10:30 at night. I don't know how old you have to be to remember this—maybe 30, maybe 35—but there was a time when that's how we watched TV. We turned it on and flipped through channels to see what was being broadcast at that particular hour of that particular day. It has been at least 10 years since we had to do that, which is great progress, but it really takes away the captive audience for the late-night shows.
If I now have a backlog of "The Great British Baking Show" on the DVR, or streaming shows on Netflix, or YouTube, or whatever—then I'm going to watch that in a heartbeat over Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert. I hate to burst your bubble, but back in the day Leno and David Letterman (especially Letterman) could be pretty hit or miss. Even Saint Johnny of Carson, Peace Be Upon Him, wasn't 100% reliable. Sometime Carnac the Magnificent delivered the laughs, and sometimes, believe me, he didn't. There are many times when I would almost certainly have watched something else if I had the option.
Add to this another factor: everyone is jumping into the streaming TV space, and they're glutting the market with original programming. A TV reviewer recently observed that "In the last two years, television critics have definitively realized they can't watch everything and there's nobody left even willing to lie about it." There are a bunch of contenders who want to be the next video streaming powerhouse, so they're throwing money into original programming even if they're splitting the market so much that they're not making money. Each is hoping it will be one of the winners who helps overthrow the big networks.
So the late night shows are in a much fiercer competition for eyeballs than ever before, and I suspect the politicization is a response to that—a desperate way of getting in the news, of getting noticed, of securing the loyalty of a particular demographic. This is also my theory about the big entertainment awards shows like the Oscars and the Emmys. If the big, broad, general audience you used to have is gone, and deep down you think it's never coming back, then why not make a harder bid for the loyalty of the smaller audience you've got left? In a time when the entertainment industry is (or thinks it is) a one-party state with no dissenters, you had better echo that politics back to your base.
What were once cultural institutions with a broad, bipartisan audience are becoming niche players with a narrow fan base. They no longer view partisan politics as a dangerous move that will shrink their audience. Instead, they're using partisan politics as a lure to secure the loyalty of their audience, or what is left of it. Not that it's going to work over the long term, because people who want to have their biases confirmed will just watch the 5-minute YouTube clip that Chris Cillizza links to the next day.
This is a good reason not to be to concerned over late night hosts pushing us away with political diatribes when we just want to be entertained. The fact is that we were already drifting away, and they're just making a desperate bid for attention in a fading medium.