If Comedy Central hoped Larry Wilmore might stave off a post-Colbert exodus, Nielsen ratings for “The Nightly Show,” as reported by Mediaite yesterday, are sure to disappoint. In the three months since his debut, Wilmore has averaged 417,000 viewers in the key 18-49 demo, a 39% slide from “The Colbert Report” in the same time period last year. But “Nightly Show” fans need not panic just yet: when it comes to late night, patience is a virtue.
Wilmore’s struggle to recapture Colbert’s magic illustrates the format’s reliance on familiarity, consistency, and audience trust. Compared to his predecessor’s nine years behind “The Colbert Report” anchor desk, Wilmore’s tenure is in its infancy, and as I wrote last month, it’s clear that “The Nightly Show” host has not yet clearly defined his role in the uneven political and cultural debates he oversees each episode. Playing referee to comedians, actors, columnists, and reporters, Wilmore has little time for the mordant insights that marked his appearances with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show”—so far, the ship has seemed to be steering him as often as the reverse. That said, neither Stewart or Colbert emerged fully formed as late-night icons, and it’s fair to expect “The Nightly Show” to continue evolving as it tries to find its stride.
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Indeed, holding on to fickle late night audiences, particularly in an increasingly competitive landscape, is no easy task for any host. After a first-week bump, “The Late Late Show with James Corden” (1.2 million viewers 18-49) dropped to second place behind “Late Night with Seth Meyers” (1.5 million), which enjoyed a year’s head start; Corden’s ratings also slipped slightly compared to the February average for “The Late Late Show,” hosted by rotating celebrity guests. Even David Letterman, closing in on the end of his “Late Show” career, has struggled to keep pace with “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” February sweeps saw Fallon (1.4 million in the demo) dust Kimmel (808,000), with Letterman (668,000) a relatively close third.
Now more than ever, late night viewers seem to be asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Fallon’s silly celebrity games and Kimmel’s mean tweets regularly become viral sensations, something Letterman’s bone-dry sense of humor and Wilmore’s rambling roundtable discussions don’t lend themselves to nearly as well. Perhaps the best example of a late-night host who’s parlayed Internet attention into strong ratings is John Oliver, whose “Last Week Tonight,” on HBO, recently drew 1.3 million Live+3 viewers 18-49. Between his satirical antics (Michael Bolton singing about the IRS), thoroughly reported political commentaries (even on a topic as boring as patent law), and his brilliant, headline-making interview with Edward Snowden, Oliver has supplanted Stewart and Colbert as the comedian even casual viewers turn to for an unvarnished opinion.
READ MORE: “How John Oliver Beat Stewart, Colbert, and Broadcast News at Their Own Games”
In each of these success stories, however, hosts had one major advantage over Wilmore and Corden: a reputation. Audiences in search of the next series worth their loyalty may sample widely, but an existing fan base counts. Oliver subbed for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” during the production of “Rosewater”; Meyers starred on “Saturday Night Live” during some of its best recent seasons; and fellow “SNL” alum Fallon built a following at “Late Night” before being called up to the big leagues. Give Wilmore and Corden time to hone their formats and develop a consistent product before writing them off. They may end up household names before you can say “truthiness.”