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There are no guarantees in late night. Nothing better illustrates that than the start of the 2017-18 season, where Stephen Colbert is now the most-watched host, once-dominant Jimmy Fallon is down by 31 percent and dark horse Jimmy Kimmel is taking a competitive stand.
Late-night ratings from the first two weeks of the new season are in stark contrast to those just a year ago, when few (if any) had a clue as to how much the characters of the 2016 presidential election would still be figuring into monologues, viral clip bait and even interviews. The late-night ratings race of the Trump era is unquestionably driven by viewer interest in current events and instant hot takes. And even though he’s still in third place, ABC’s Kimmel is starting to reap those rewards.
Jimmy Kimmel Live! is the only 11:35 p.m. telecast up by both key measures this season, with viewership up by nine percent and his showing among adults 18-49 up by four percent. The second stat makes Kimmel especially unique. Both Fallon and Colbert have lost viewers in the key demo, even though the latter’s total audience is up — a fact that’s been exhaustively covered since February. Kimmel’s lean into political conversation, most notably the health-care debate and (most recently) gun control, is not something many would have predicted even after Donald Trump’s surprise election. But it does not appear to be alienating viewers. He even won the first night of the season, in overnight ratings, a rarity for Kimmel when he’s not lifted by ABC’s annual coverage of the NBA Finals.
Stephen Colbert still holds a 16 percent advantage over No. 3 Kimmel among adults 18-49, though demos have not been much of a concern for his CBS telecast. Growing his audience wins over Fallon’s Tonight since February, Colbert is No. 1 by nearly a 30 percent advantage. The ratings depression for Fallon is rather damning. He’s the only host to have fewer viewers than he did last year, down 25 percent to an average 2.75 million viewers since the start of the new season. He remains hard to catch in the key demo, but the margins are shrinking there as well. Tonight is pulling just 38 percent of the adults 18-49 watching ABC, NBC and CBS during his time period.
Two weeks is early — too early, really — to make a strong forecast for the season ahead. But these aren’t new trends. And if the coming season sees as much tumult as the last one, we could soon see a very different late-night hierarchy.
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