Emmys: Where's the Variety in the Variety Talk Race?

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Courtesy of Networks

This year’s crop of late-night TV nominees feels like a case of deja vu — what will it take to shake things up in the category?

With more networks, personalities, formats and new shows coming and going in the late night TV space than ever before, it might come as a surprise that when the Emmy nominees were announced in July, the variety talk category looked exactly as it did last year.

The 2018 winner, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, is again joined by Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, The Late Late Show With James Corden and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. But that's not for a lack of competition and fresh voices in the space. During the 2018-19 season, Conan O'Brien mixed up his show's format on TBS, Desus & Mero found a larger platform on Showtime and Netflix's Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj got into the game. That's not to mention BET's The Rundown With Robin Thede, which made history with the first woman of color as a late night host, and Busy Philipps' talk show on E!, though both shows were canceled.

The last time the same shows were nominated in the category back-to-back was 2012-13, when Kimmel, Bill Maher, Colbert, Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon went up against SNL. (Before the variety category was split into talk and sketch races in 2015, late night talkers regularly competed against series including Chappelle's Show, In Living Color and Muppets Tonight.) The same thing happened in 2008-09 with David Letterman, Maher, Colbert, Stewart and SNL.

The current crop of nominated and eligible shows has sparked a debate over whether the variety talk category needs to be split yet again between daily and weekly shows, in order to avoid what could be a decade of Last Week Tonight's dominance. "Broadcast hosts like Colbert do 200 shows a year, and other hosts are doing more packaged shows once a week, so is it really a level playing field? Or are we looking at apples and oranges?" asks one veteran awards strategist.

One of Oliver's strengths (and Bee's, for that matter) is that he is able to train a wide lens on a week's worth of news, addressing the latest Trump inanity before moving on to a carefully researched, well-crafted look at a deeper issue. The nightly shows, with their daily writing processes that often get upended by the latest gaffe/mistake/racist comment from POTUS, have to respond within hours — with jokes that often become raw, watercooler-type moments. But Oliver's show appears more analytical and often more original.

Take Trump's recent attacks on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and what's become known as "The Squad," which also includes Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. All the late night hosts responded, with Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Kimmel, Seth Meyers and Noah defending The Squad in parallel monologues while labeling Trump's comments everything from "appallingly racist" to a "burrito of wrongness."

After the second round of Democratic debates, on CNN, the nightly hosts again ran through the same list of topics: Cory Booker's "Kool-Aid" comment, Marianne Williamson's otherworldly appearance and Joe Biden calling Kamala Harris "kid."

With that kind of uniformity, for lack of a better word, from household names, voters tend to stick to what they know. "There's a lot of competition for attention and even more content," says the awards strategist. "People vote what they know, what's familiar and comfortable."

So looking at this year's nominees, has anything changed to level the playing field, or will HBO and Oliver continue a streak to rival that of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart?

It's up to the networks to find, or create, a new star (with high hopes at NBC pinned to Lilly Singh, who'll debut Sept. 16 at 1:35 a.m.). "If a show is ever going to compete with the likes of Oliver and Colbert, there has to be a real strong and maintained publicity campaign to keep these shows in the spotlight. You need a full-blown campaign in this crowded environment," says an awards consultant and former TV executive, who adds that a fresh angle on the U.S. political divide could make an impact. "It may take the next election for somebody to emerge, and it could be somebody with a real right-wing perspective on the world to differentiate."


This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.