Larry Wilmore and Comedy Central's $100 Million in Vanished Profits

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Larry Wilmore

The cancellation of 'The Nightly Show' highlights the network's sharp decline in annual cash flow (down about a third since 2014) as talent bolts and competition heats up.

Keeping it 100, the abrupt curtain call for Larry Wilmore at Comedy Central is no shocker.

His Nightly Show suffered a lack of buzz and viewers almost immediately after it premiered 19 months ago. But its Aug. 15 cancellation makes it apparent Comedy Central is aware of a much larger problem: Its once-dominant late-night lineup is in desperate need of repair.

“They’re seeing their ratings shrink a lot as their younger-skewing audience is eating up their content in other places,” says SNL Kagan analyst Scott Robson. "There are increasing subscriber losses and an overall decline in ratings, so you're seeing two forces working against them."

The problem is shared by most cable networks, particularly at parent Viacom, but Comedy Central’s drop is atypically dramatic in the 11 p.m. hour, where former poster boys Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) frequently outrated The Tonight Show among adults 18-to-49 as recently as 2014. Colbert, who bolted for CBS and made way for Wilmore, was drawing about three times the key demo audience when he signed off. (Wilmore’s average of 327,000 adults 18-to-49 this season is outmatched by Conan O’Brien on TBS and Andy Cohen on Bravo.) Trevor Noah’s Daily Show generates about a third of the key audience Stewart did, but he still handily outperformed his Nightly lead-out and his job is said to be safe.

Chris Hardwick’s @midnight will fill the slot until a replacement show can be found — and sources don't expect that will happen before year's end. A bigger problem for Comedy Central might be that so much of its top homegrown talent — Daily Show alums Samantha Bee, Jason Jones and John Oliver — now work at other nets. All three have garnered considerable heat for their post-Daily Show vehicles, and Bee and Oliver have eaten up more of the late-night audience with critical-favorites Full Frontal and Last Week Tonight, respectively. 

"Now that we have resolution, we can start having conversations with people," Comedy Central president Kent Alterman says of Nightly's cancellation, emphasizing that he has "full faith" in Noah. "The great thing about the comedy community is that people know where we are — and we know who and where they are."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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