Prediction: ABC, NBC, Or CBS Will Cancel Late-Night In 5 Years

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For 20 years, ABC, NBC, and CBS have competed for late-night superiority.

Battles included Jay Leno vs. David Letterman. An in-house feud between Leno and Conan O’Brien. And over the recent years, a three-way skirmish between Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon.

The history of American culture cannot be told without Johnny Carson, the forever King of Late Night.

But late-night is not what it was decades ago. Or even a decade ago.

Wednesday, I discussed the future of late-night with Stacy Washington on SiriusXM Patriot. I predicted that at least one of the broadcast networks — NBC, ABC, and CBS — would cancel its late-night programming entirely in the next five years.

(Note: The prediction is unrelated to Fallon’s apology for a toxic work environment.)

Here’s why:

Late-night is not cost-effective. The overhead — host salary, large writing staff, travel expenses for guests — is substantial.

In the past, networks could offset the large production costs with even larger ad sales. That is not the case no more.

Last year,  “Tonight Show,” “Late Night, Late Show,” “Late Late Show,” “The Daily Show,” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” combined for $342.4 million in ad revenue. In 2018, “Tonight Show” generated $334 million in ad revenue alone.

According to Axios:

The drop in revenue is a direct result of the drop in viewership.

The top three rated late-night programs combined for a 9 million viewer average in 2010. Before the writers’ strike in May, the trio of Colbert and the Jimmys were lucky to top 3 million combined viewers.

Ratings are down. Revenue is down. And profit has eroded.

The Los Angeles Magazine reported in April that “The Late Late Show” with James Corden lost, on average, over $20 million a year.

For that reason, CBS canceled the 30-year-old series entirely after Corden’s departure earlier this year.

Instead of trying to find the next Craig Kilborn or Craig Ferguson, the network will reportedly replace the program with a cheaply produced trivia-themed game show.

“[The Late Late Show] was simply not sustainable,” one unnamed executive told the outlet.

Corden’s show wasn’t financially feasible. Nor are the others.

While Corden averaged fewer viewers than The Big 3 — Colbert, Kimmel, and Fallon — and thus generated more revenue, he also made more than three times less.

CBS reportedly paid Corden $4 million a year. Colbert, Kimmel, and Fallon earn north of $15 million each. And their ratings aren’t much better:

The potential for a late-night rebound is possible, but not promising.

The format is archaic.

In the past, late-night was one of the few outlets where viewers could hear from their favorite actor, musician, athlete, or politician. Today, fans have up-to-the-minute access to public figures via social media.

Troubled artists no longer wait for a scheduled late-night appearance to say something newsworthy. Instead, they upload troubling videos to Instagram by themselves.

There are also podcasts to compete with. Late-night interviews are beholden to commercial breaks, runtimes, and FCC violations. Podcasts are not. Podcast interviews are uninterrupted, long-form, and on-demand.

Big-name guests would rather appear alongside Joe Rogan than Colbert. Pop artists would rather chat with Alex Cooper than Fallon. Rogan and Cooper are more fun. And far more influential.

So, even if late-night were to try to make amends with the half of the country it shunned in 2016 — 95% of late-night guests are now liberal, according to NewsBusters — the undesirable format and change in viewing habits would continue to persist.

There is no precedent in television history for networks to continue to invest in products that lose money or are on a trajectory to lose money.

Conceivably, it’d be more cost-effective for broadcast networks to replace late-night programming with re-airs of scripted television.

Certainly, networks would save money by turning the hours over to their local affiliates.

The future for late-night is bleak.


Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack is a writer for OutKick where he reports and analyzes the latest topics in media, culture, sports, and politics..

Burack has become a prominent voice in media and has been featured on several shows across OutKick and industry related podcasts and radio stations.

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