Is The Late Night Talk Show Format A Dying Breed?

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Bill Carter over at the New York Times has an interesting/scare piece on the future of the late night talk show format, which may be driving itself out of relevancy with its extremely expensive production costs, uncertain relationship with social media and the fact that everyone and their mom watches TV online. Writes Carter, “That the days of the heavily produced late-night hour, backed by a full band, well-stocked costume and prop departments and a phalanx of 20 writers or more — fronted by a host making $25 million a year — are dwindling.”

The fact that neither Leno nor Letterman received an Emmy nod this year, while two-year-old Fallon did, might be an indication that the oversaturation of the late night market has made both viewers and critics more cagey. Notes Carter, there are currently nine shows with the talk show format that air between 11:30pm and 1:00am. If any one show represents the tension between the old guard and new possibilities, it seems to be Conan. Simultaneously working to engage viewers via the Interwebs, while keeping the traditional look and feel of his show, O’Brien’s viewership has dropped by nearly half since his debut on TBS this fall. Letterman and Leno, too, have seen a serious decline in viewership. Meanwhile, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are killing it, relatively.

The question seems to be: what does future of late night look like if viewers are no longer engaged by the familiar talk show format? As for my two cents, it seems that overwhelming prevalence of celebrities on the Internet may have permanently changed the game. It makes sense that people are less likelihood to tune in for a particular actor or band if those people are already constantly accessible online and via a half dozen other talk shows. Could the traditional late night format simply cease to dominate, what with alternatives like Adult Swim reportedly poaching a significant portion of the viewing audience? Most importantly, if the general trend toward viewer disinterest proves to be true, could a host like Conan reinvent their show to make it meaningful again, or is he destined to bottom out, only to be replaced by the next generation of late night? Are we going to see more Daily Shows and Colbert Reports before long?