How Jimmy Fallon and Other Late Night Hosts Became Slaves to the "Pseudo-Live" TV Economy

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -  Season: 3 - Jimmy Fallon - Publicity-H 2019
Art Streiber/NBC

While Fallon has 12.7 billion YouTube views, many people are watching late night TV late at night, and it's still where the shows generate the lion's share of their revenue.

In the 2010s, everyone started watching late night in daylight. Or at least that's what the numbers seem to indicate. Live viewership for the three top-rated late night programs dropped from 9 million in 2010 to 7 million in 2019, while the shows' social media hits skyrocketed during that period. Granted, it was a smaller social media world 10 years ago, but still: Stephen Colbert's Late Show on CBS has 5.7 billion YouTube views (about 1,800 times his nightly viewership), while Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show on NBC has 12.7 billion (7,000 times). And it's not just talk shows that have gone digital: Saturday Night Live registered a 48 percent increase in subscribers in 2016 alone (credit viral videos like Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer impersonation, which racked up 34 million hits).

But it turns out that many people are watching late night TV late at night, and it's still where the shows generate the lion's share of their revenue. NBC's late night lineup pulled in $334 million in TV ad revenue in 2018, according to Kantar Media. SNL last November averaged more than $181,000 for a 30-second spot, says SQAD MediaCosts. Digital revenue on most shows, say late night insiders, doesn't even cover the host's salary.

While scripted content has seen a dramatic shift to on-demand viewing, late night has clung to a chunk of its core live audience. It's what media buyers call "pseudo live," a fountain of clickable content that also, for a large, older segment of viewers, maintains some semblance of time sensitivity. "Late night has a foot in both worlds," says David Campanelli, an executive vp at media buyer Horizon.

As ad buyers and audiences become more platform agnostic, that core live audience will continue to chip away. For now, though, Fallon and the others are still being watched in bed. 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.