the streaming wars

The Tonight Show and Late Night Will Stream Hours Before They Air on NBC

Welcome to Peacock, Jimmy! Photo: NBC

In a dramatic shift to the long-established TV order, NBCUniversal will move the premiere telecasts of NBC flagship late-night stalwarts The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers to the company’s new streaming service Peacock. Starting in July, the two shows will stream on Peacock at 8 and 9 p.m. ET respectively each weeknight, with the NBC broadcast network essentially airing a rerun of each show three-and-a-half hours later. Peacock will announce the decision this afternoon at an investor’s conference.

While NBC execs aren’t talking (yet) about their thinking behind the move, NBC’s affiliated TV stations, which pay substantial fees for the rights to NBC shows, will likely not love the idea of two important pieces of nightly programming being made available to streaming audiences first. This could be one reason why Peacock says its so-called “late night early” feature will only be available as part of Peacock Premium, a special tier available for free to authenticated cable subscribers (starting at launch with Comcast and Cox customers, or roughly 24 million homes) and for $4.95 (or $9.95 without ads) to anyone else. Tonight and Late Night will not stream early on the free version of Peacock, which will contain ads and be available to all consumers.

A rival network exec initially expressed surprise when a Vulture reporter informed him about it on Tuesday morning. “Whoa,” he said. “That’s … wow.” But despite being shocked, the exec didn’t think it would change the status quo in the late-night ratings race. “The numbers are gonna be the same,” he said, noting that it’s more likely the Peacock streaming strategy will bring new eyeballs to Tonight and Late Night rather than steal them from folks who currently watch on broadcast or cable. That’s because NBC’s late-night shows get much of their linear viewing from audiences already watching NBC or linear television, and it seems unlikely those viewers will suddenly decide to seek out the programs on a paid streaming platform.

“It seems to me to be the right idea, but I don’t know if it’s the right shows,” the rival exec said, explaining that Tonight in particular is not the sort of topical, must-see-now type of broadcast that could benefit from essentially airing in primetime. By contrast, the Meyers-hosted Late Night, whose first half is very headline-driven, might be a program that news junkies might enjoy seeing at an earlier hour.

In terms of possibly drawing away viewers from the linear telecasts — the likely fear of affiliates — for at least a few years, the number of people with access to Peacock Premium, while not insignificant, will be small relative to the hundreds of millions of viewers with access to the free, over-the-air NBC telecasts of Meyers and Fallon. “The [Nielsen ratings] are going to be what they are, even with this,” the rival exec predicted. Indeed, affiliates “upset” over the NBC scheduling shuffle long ago lost the battle for true late-night exclusivity: Fallon and Meyers (as well as CBS’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert) all release advance segments on social media and YouTube before their West Coast broadcasts — and in some cases before their shows air on the East Coast, too.

Still, local affiliates will very likely gripe because NBC is putting a key part of its offering on a digital platform before it airs on their stations. While networks have experimented with previewing shows on digital or even airing reruns of shows that first ran on cable platforms before coming to NBC, this is a rare and possibly unprecedented case of two tentpole network shows shifting to streaming for their debut window. That exclusive-to-streaming window is, of course, incredibly small — barely more than 200 minutes. But what will concern affiliates is the precedent it sets, and the signal it sends: The future of TV is streaming.

Tonight and Late Night to Stream Hours Before Airing on NBC