Trevor Noah's 'Daily Show' Mandate: Lure Millennials, Digital Heat

Digital Comedy Central Illo - H 2015
Illustration by: John Ueland

Digital Comedy Central Illo - H 2015

Amy Schumer opened a movie at $30 million, but she and new 'Daily Show' host Trevor Noah are part of Comedy Central's struggle against declining ratings as Viacom battles for a digital future.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When Trevor Noah took the stage July 29 for a Television Critics Association Q&A, the new host of The Daily Show suggested that its focus on cable stalwarts Fox News and CNN soon might shift to BuzzFeed and Gawker. "The way people are absorbing their news in sound bites and headlines and little click links has changed everything," Noah, 31, told reporters. "The biggest challenge is, how do we bring all of that together?"

Comedy Central and its fellow Viacom cable networks are asking the same question. As its target demographic of millennial males increasingly consumes entertainment online, Comedy Central has seen its primetime audience shrink every year since 2012. That slide is familiar to all networks, but Comedy Central's recent 10 percent decline among adults 18-to-49 is especially troubling considering it boasts such zeitgeisty talent as Amy Schumer, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The network scored 26 Primetime Emmy nominations in July (topped only by HBO and FX on cable), but the buzz has not translated to linear ratings success.

Schumer might best illustrate the conflict: Ten days before her Trainwreck opened to $30.1 million at the domestic box office, the July 7 season finale of Inside Amy Schumer mustered only 1.3 million viewers after three days of time-shifted viewing, the Nielsen metric Comedy Central uses. "I just go with the good faith that creating content that resonates with an audience, regardless of platform, is most important," says Kent Alterman, the network's president of original programming. "I'm going with the faith that the business models will be figured out so the monetization can follow."

To its credit, Comedy Central's digital footprint is much more formidable than its Viacom siblings. Its YouTube presence, overwhelmingly driven by the soon-to-end Key & Peele, has put the rest of the portfolio to shame with more than 1.5 billion views. But ad rates for digital views pale in comparison to traditional rates for, say, Daily Show, and branded digital vehicles have made much smaller impressions. Comedy Central launched streaming originals house CC:Studios in 2013. Despite its "Not for TV" mantra, its biggest contribution has been shifting two series (This Is Not Happening and Idiotsitter) to the network. And its stand-alone app, tethered to mandatory cable authentication and offering a small library because of rights issues, has been a nonstarter.

Comedy Central has been outpaced by fellow Viacom net MTV when it comes to website traffic. ComScore put MTV, driven by MTV News' editorial content, at 19.9 million unique visitors in June, ahead of Comedy Central's video-heavy 12.8 million. (VH1 was a distant third in the portfolio, down 12 percent year-over-year with 5.5 million uniques.) However, unable to secure rights to the most popular artists' music videos, MTV's digital presence in its historical area of expertise is modest at best. And like CC:Studios, online studio MTV (other) has made few waves — nor has its inaugural YouTube channel, Braless, a feminist spin on current events that seldom sees its offerings crack 200,000 views.

"When you pick up somebody's iPhone, you don't see Comedy Central or MTV apps on the home screen," says BTIG media analyst Richard Greenfield. "We live in a mobile-driven world, and companies like Viacom and Discovery are not part of it. I'm sure there'd be a lot of interest in Comedy Central if you could buy it directly. The question is, what would that do to their business?"

As Jon Stewart signs off Aug. 6, Daily Show largely remains an outsider in late-night's battle for viral success. The morning-after war waged by NBC's Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who tailor content for streaming bites and post a surplus of online exclusives, is a two-man race. Stephen Colbert has shown digital aptitude in promos for the Sept. 8 relaunch of CBS' Late Show, but Comedy Central's Stewart and Larry Wilmore (of The Nightly Show) largely are bound by the structure of their linear telecasts.

Noah's arrival Sept. 28 could signal a turning point. "We will start moving to The Daily Show not being thought of as that half-hour slot on TV but having a presence that transcends that location and hopefully being available to people where and when they want to watch it," says Alterman. Still, experts don't anticipate Comedy Central or any other nonpay network will bite the hand of the lucrative cable bundle, as HBO and Showtime recently have. For Comedy Central, the challenge is to find a happy medium that secures a younger audience online and for the traditional network. Regardless of whether he understood that when he took the job, Noah now shares that mission.

Additional reporting by Bryn Elise Sandberg.