Are We Reaching the Late Night Show Saturation Point?

Tonight sees the premiere of The Pete Holmes Show, TBS’s new post-Conan late night series. The late night field is now more crowded than it’s ever been in the history of television with 19 current late night comedy/talk shows occupying the 11pm to 2am window on 12 different networks (with one in syndication). Holmes’s show is the fourth new late night show to premiere this year alone, following Nikki & Sara LiveArsenio, Tom Green Live, and @midnight. With so many similar shows chasing similar audiences in a similar timeslot, is there enough room for all of them? Or is this excess of late night shows going to tire audiences of the genre entirely?

(NOTE: The 19 current late night shows are Tonight Show with Jay Leno (NBC), Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC), The Late Show with David Letterman (CBS), The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS), Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC), Last Call with Carson Daly (NBC), The Daily Show (Comedy Central), The Colbert Report (Comedy Central), @midnight (Comedy Central), Conan (TBS), The Pete Holmes Show (TBS), Chelsea Lately (E!), Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (FXX), Nikki & Sara Live (MTV), Watch What Happens Live (Bravo), Red Eye (Fox News), Don’t Sleep! Hosted by T.J. Holmes (BET), Tom Green Live (AXS TV) and The Arsenio Hall Show (syndication).

There’s never even been close to this many late night shows on TV at one time, with some airing daily and some weekly. With every show facing a lot of competition, it’s important they distinguish themselves. The broadcast network shows and Conan all feature a similar monologue/desk bit/guest 1/guest 2/musical guest structure, relying on the host’s personality and sensibility to give the shows identity. Cable late night programs are wisely breaking from that traditional structure and subject matter. The Daily Show and Colbert Report have been earning high ratings and separating themselves from the competition with their political/satirical focus for years. FXX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell has found viral success with video clips of the show’s debates on subjects like rape jokes and the existence of God, Arsenio is counting on viewers’ love for ‘90s nostalgia, and Nikki & Sara Live is catering to their hip, young MTV audience.

Late night TV’s two newest shows, @midnight and Pete Holmes, are also trying to be idiosyncratic. @midnight is perhaps the most different from all these other series in that it’s a game show, not a talk show. And @midnight’s heavy incorporation of social media isn’t something you see on most of the other programs. The Pete Holmes Show will feature a more standup-y monologue without traditional set-up/punchline jokes, there’ll be sketches, and the guests will be Holmes’s friends and peers instead of actors promoting their latest movie.

Carving out a unique niche is the key to each show’s success and late night shows that fail to do so typically won’t find an audience. With so many late night series — and so many of them being new — we can expect some of them to fall by the wayside over the next year or two. Arsenio may be the first to go, having just lost its showrunner a month in and experiencing declining ratings after a strong premiere.

Although not all 19 of TV’s current late night shows will last, there are plenty of new shows and hosts on the way. 2014 set to be a big transitional year. Jay Leno will be handing The Tonight Show over to Jimmy Fallon, who will be leaving Late Night in Seth Meyers’s hands. David Letterman recently renewed his contract through 2015, but he’s not expected to stay much longer than that as he’ll be closing in on 70 by the time his contract runs up, an unusually high age for a late night host. That’ll leave his Late Show post vacant, and depending on whether Craig Ferguson gets that job or not, possibly The Late Late Show too. NBC’s 1:35am series Last Call, which abandoned comedy for the sake of being a documentary show in 2009, is about to undergo a revamping with Carson Daly leaving for The Today Show and it could possible become a comedy again. On top of all that, there’s the morning show-themed late night show that the USA network and Will Ferrell’s company Gary Sanchez are working on.

With the late night world so overpopulated, each additional show runs the risk of making audiences feel exhausted with late night TV in general, but with so many shows doing well — or well-ish — and next year being open season, ratings-wise, with the Tonight Show/Late Night transition, we can expect the number of late night shows on TV to keep steadily increasing for the time being.

Are We Reaching the Late Night Show Saturation Point?