The Networks are Doomed, and Jon Stewart Is Helping Dig Their Graves

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It looks like Conan got out at just the right time. In October, the number one late night show on TV with adults 18-49 was not on a network, it was on basic cable for the first time ever. Yes, The Daily Show beat every other late night talk show on TV last month, a pretty stunning blow to the networks.

It’s definitely not good news for networks that are seeing their audience drop all across the board. While these late night shows used to be a relatively inexpensive way to fill the late-night airtime, it’s quickly becoming harder to justify the tens of millions of dollars they throw at their hosts.

Here are the numbers:

1. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” – 1.3 million viewers2. “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” – 1.2 million viewers3. “Late Show with David Letterman” – 1.2 million viewers4. “The Colbert Report” – 900,000 viewers5. “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” – 800,000 viewers6. “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” – 700,0007. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” – 700,0008. “Chelsea Lately” – 650,0009. “Lopez Tonight” – 450,000

Furthermore, the formats for the network talk shows have remained unchanged for decades. In the age of the internet, does it really make sense to have the monologue/desk bits/interview/musical guest format? Do people actually care about the celebrity interviews and the bands playing? The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have really created their own formats with their shows, taking elements from the traditional talk show format but making each show uniquely theirs.

Sure, they each do interviews, but the movie stars showing up to plug their latest project are becoming less and less frequent. By mixing comedy and politics, having (semi-)serious interviews in the context of a comedy show, they’ve created a completely new type of show, one that has obviously resonated with a huge audience. (It’s also resonated with a lucrative audience, it should be noted. The Daily Show has led the networks in the advertiser-catnip men aged 18-24 for years.) When people have a choice between what on the surface is two versions of the exact same thing with Leno and Letterman, it makes the third choice of something completely different that much more appealing.

Which makes you wonder about Conan’s format. All signs point to it being a traditional talk show, pretty much the same thing he was doing at NBC but with a new studio and a new network. Would it have been smarter to make a bolder move with the format, seeing he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted? Or will he instead use his new-found cable freedom to experiment with his content while staying within the same format? Time will tell. But the fact that networks are less willing to mess with established shows that have been around for decades is part of what gives cable its advantage right now. If he doesn’t take advantage, I’m not sure how he expects to compete with the Comedy Central boys.