Jon Stewart Exit Leaves Comedy Central at a Crossroads

The 'Daily Show' host isn't just the face of the cable network, he put it on the pop culture map.
Comedy Central / Screengrab
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

Jon Stewart's announcement that he'll leave The Daily Show later this year after more than 15 years shocked his fans and leaves a gigantic void at Comedy Central.

The news came during a taping of his show on Tuesday night, minutes before NBC News announced a six-month suspension for embattled anchor Brian Williams. If NBCUniversal will lose the face of its news division, Comedy Central is losing a personality of far more importance to the Viacom-owned channel. It was Stewart — along with Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park — who put Comedy Central on the pop culture map.

Read More Jon Stewart to Leave 'The Daily Show' This Year

And Stewart's exit is the latest in a series of shoes to drop at the network. Stephen Colbert left in December. He'll take over for CBS' retiring David Letterman, a gig that was impossible for Colbert to turn down. But Comedy Central executives were unable to keep John Oliver, whose HBO show premiered last spring and is quickly earning its place in the zeitgeist. Larry Wilmore's recent launch on the late-night block has shown early promise, but his Nightly Show is still largely reliant on Daily's coattails and has held less of Stewart's audience than Colbert did.

Keeping that late-night block as the keystone of Comedy Central's original programing — the network expanded it to a full 90 minutes in 2013 with the addition of Chris Hardwick talker @Midnight — depends on who moves into the 11 p.m. slot. Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless seemed preemptively confidant in keeping The Daily Show franchise alive in her statement acknowledging Stewart's exit, saying it will "endure for years to come." That will no doubt depend on whether the network can successfully transition someone new into Stewart's chair.

Read More Jon Stewart on Directorial Debut 'Rosewater,' His 'Daily Show' Future and Those Israel-Gaza Comments

It's difficult to start this conversation again, given the musical chairs in late night since last year, especially considering the most likely heirs, Oliver and Wilmore, have already moved on. An experimental effort like Wilmore's seems too risky, anyway. The Daily Show could promote from within. The show, after all, is famous for cultivating talent in its correspondent roster — see famous alumni Steve Carell, Michael Che, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, OliviaMunn and Rob Riggle — and Comedy Central has been eager to capitalize on that bench since first giving Colbert a spinoff in 2005. (The current Daily Show news team includes longtime correspondents Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, Jessica Williams and John Hodgman.)

Or the show could bring in an established talent such as Sarah Silverman or Aziz Ansari.

For Comedy Central, the No. 17 cable network in primetime last year, its ratings power is only eclipsed by MTV in the Viacom catalog. The Daily Show has played a large part in that, as it has in the network's revenue: an overall $780.5 million in 2013, $480.5 million of it from advertising. That's one reason why Stewart is currently the highest-paid host in late night. Though recent successes in primetime, including Key & Peele and Inside AmySchumer, will soften the blow. And there likely won't be an immediate impact on affiliate deals, as those are in place for several years, but Stewart's exit is a blow to all on board Comedy Central.

As for the man himself, Stewart seemed open to getting out of Daily's daily grind when he spoke with The Hollywood Reporter last summer. "Look, there's only so many ways that I know how to evolve it," he said. "I'm sure even at this point I've overstayed my welcome to a good number of people."

The host also spoke positively of his experience directing the film Rosewater, which he filmed over an elected Daily Show break in 2013. And though he wasn't actively looking for another film project to tackle at the time, more moves in that arena wouldn't be surprising.

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