What Will TV’s Next Four Years Look Like?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by CNN/YouTube, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon/YouTube, Mackenzie Calle/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert/YouTube

Trump, and Trump-ism, has dominated — no, overwhelmed — our culture in a way nothing else has in my nearly half-century on this planet. (Disco is probably a close second.) I would love to think that all goes away on Jan. 21, but last week’s failed insurrection sadly signals we probably won’t be so lucky. This week’s Buffering focuses on how the evil at 1600 Pennsylvania ended up being a “positive” for two sectors of the industry which otherwise might have faced a very challenging four years: cable news and late night. Trump’s chaos inarguably gave news networks and late-night hosts a ratings (and thus financial) boost, but with his imminent exit, many of the viewers who turned to TV to help them deal with Trump’s words and deeds may move on — unless execs quickly figure out how to evolve their models for the streaming age. Here’s a look at how they might adapt in order to better survive without the perversely positive effect Trump had on their bottom lines.

Cable news will (finally) have to jump into the streaming age

Networks of all stripes have seen their Nielsen ratings plummet over the past five years as the great shift to streaming disrupted the entire linear TV business. But thanks to the never-ending-crisis news cycle ushered in by Trump, the two major cable news channels (CNN and MSNBC), as well as Trump-boosting infotainment network Fox News, have been drawing some of their biggest audiences ever. I don’t think these viewers will all disappear after January 20, particularly if last week’s violent attempt to overturn November’s election results ends up being just the start of a long period of instability. But if Biden is able to reestablish even the smallest semblance of normality, and when the pandemic (hopefully) is brought to heel, cable news ratings will almost certainly start to fade. And that’s when the folks who run CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are going to wake up to the reality that the entire cable TV ecosystem is quickly crumbling — and that cable news can’t survive if it remains centered around cable distribution. It needs to remake itself for the streaming age, and quickly.

Consumers have been abandoning pay-TV bundles in huge numbers over the past decade, and the pace of defection is picking up. There were just under 100 million TV homes with cable (or virtual cable services like YouTube TV) the year Trump was elected president; that number is now under 80 million by most accounts. And per PwC data, the number of U.S. homes with some sort of pay-TV bundle has fallen from 84 percent in 2016 to 67 percent last year, with the number forecast to dip below 60 percent by 2024. The older viewers who make up the bulk of cable news audiences are probably the most likely to hold on to their cable bundles, and I’m sure news execs have data showing that many cable customers are sticking with cable because of their favorite news networks. But the rate of cord-cutting has now accelerated to the point where news networks are soon going to have no choice but to figure out how to make their programming available in homes where people choose not to buy a programming bundle. They will need to find ways to replace the subscription revenues they’re losing as folks opt for video-on-demand platforms such as Netflix or Prime Video.

So far, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News have opted against giving audiences the ability to directly subscribe to their main channels, much the way Disney won’t let sports fans pay just for ESPN. There have been reports that CNN is looking at creating a subscription service for superfans the way Fox News has with its Fox Nation, but those are additive plays aimed at niche audiences (see also ESPN+ or Lifetime Movie Club). I don’t know if we will get to the point where you can buy a subscription to the live feed of a single news channel the way you can pay directly for Showtime or CBS. Even if it was offered, I’m not sure that many people would pay $5 per month just for a news channel. But I could see WarnerMedia and Comcast, the companies that own CNN and MSNBC, respectively, figuring out a way to make live programming from those networks available on their HBO Max and Peacock platforms. They haven’t done so already in part because current deals with cable operators like Spectrum or Cox won’t allow it. That stubborn insistence on exclusivity may have to evolve as deals with cable operators come up for renewal, though.

I also think we could see more cable news programming — including live feeds — migrate to ad-supported video-on-demand platforms. As it is, CNN already has an on-demand (though not live) channel on ViacomCBS-owned Pluto TV. NBC News has also put its digital-only NBC News Now on Pluto, as well as Peacock and a few other AVOD services. But at some point soon it will make more sense to make the live feeds of what we now call “cable” news channels available on multiple streaming platforms, either free ones such as Peacock and Pluto, or pay services such as HBO Max (which later this year will roll out a lower-cost offering featuring ads). As the Trump ratings halo inevitably fades, cable news channels will have no choice but to shake up their business models.

Late night will also have to evolve … right?

Back in the 1990s, Jay Leno started off his decades-long ratings war with David Letterman as a loser, with Letterman’s CBS Late Show initially walloping Leno’s Tonight Show in the Nielsens. Leno turned things around after a couple years, and while there were many factors behind his resurgence, it was Leno’s interview with the recently arrested Hugh Grant (six words: “What the hell were you thinking”) that symbolically changed the momentum for the NBC late-night show.

Something similar happened with our current late-night battlefield. The combination of Jimmy Fallon playfully tussling Trump’s hair and Stephen Colbert deciding around the same time to go all-out on criticizing the future president roughly coincided with Colbert’s transformation into our era’s king of late night (at least as measured by Nielsen). His laser focus on calling out Trump resulted in a massive influx of new fans: Late Show struggled to reach 3 million viewers most nights before the current POTUS was elected, but after inauguration, the CBS series regularly averaged more than 4 million nightly viewers. Jimmy Kimmel similarly benefited by leaning more heavily into news and politics over the past four years, though his Nielsen gains were never as dramatic (though his ABC show began beating Fallon more regularly with Trump in the White House).

But, as with cable news, there’s a good chance the Trump ratings bump could turn into a bubble once 45 leaves office. The pandemic has already hurt viewership for all the late-night shows — even Colbert — and if the Biden era is filled with less tension than the Trump years, some of the #Resist audience may move on. If that happens, some of the same trends which have been pulling down prime-time ratings will likely impact late night.

The good news for Colbert is that the past four years gave him a much bigger base, in theory making a soft ratings landing possible. His Late Show is currently averaging a bit more than 3 million viewers this season, and while that’s down from a couple years ago and those heady weeks of 4 million-plus viewers, that’s still actually above where Late Show was pre-Trump. By contrast, Fallon is averaging a tad more than 1.5 million viewers so far this season, less than half his audience pre-Trump. Kimmel is also now tracking below his 2016 audience, though his ratings erosion is much more modest.

In fairness to all three hosts, pandemic programming disruptions — i.e., there have been far fewer episodes of scripted originals this fall; shows still don’t have full audiences or as many in-studio guests — are no doubt dragging down ratings. But with Trump not around to boost ratings, I think broadcast execs — just like their cable news peers — are going to have to get serious about figuring out how to evolve the late-night business model for the streaming age. Execs regularly talk about how much viewing takes place via YouTube and Twitter clips, but while there’s some money to be made from social media, it’s a fraction of the revenue TV generates.

Some suggestions for how they could shake things up:

➽ I wonder if the time hasn’t come for networks to once again experiment with the idea of having their main late-night shows air in prime time, something NBC briefly did at the start of the last decade with Leno. I don’t think airing Fallon, Kimmel, or Colbert at 10 p.m. (or even 8 p.m.) is going to miraculously result in millions of new viewers, but it could raise the shows’ profiles and make it easier to snag some of the over-50s who still watch live TV but simply aren’t going to stay up past 11 p.m. for a comedy show. Plus, networks have already ceded big parts of their prime-time lineups to game shows and reality series, so it’s not like devoting four or five weekly hours of prime time to a variety/talk show is going to make it more difficult to find new scripted hits. And if a network decided to go bold and air a current late-night show at 8 p.m., it might even make it possible to do the show live, adding even more energy and relevancy.

➽ I also think networks need to find a way to ensure audiences in the Western half of the country can watch late-night shows the same time they air on the East Coast. NBC already does this with Saturday Night Live, something made easier by the fact that networks don’t program scripted originals on that night. But there is zero reason in 2021 that Colbert or Fallon or Kimmel shouldn’t stream live the same time they air on TV on the East Coast. Local affiliates will object, just as they screamed at a since-delayed decision by NBC to post episodes of its late-night shows on Peacock before they aired anywhere on TV. But networks need to figure it out, particularly since 80 percent of the content of most late-night shows already posts on social-media channels before it airs on TV.

➽ Full episodes need to be widely accessible and, more importantly, monetizable on as many platforms as possible. That also goes for cable comedy shows such as Full Frontal With Samantha Bee or The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. You can watch entire episodes of those programs for free on YouTube, so why not also make them available on HBO Max or Paramount+, or for that matter, AVOD platforms such as Pluto?

The fact is, given ratings trends elsewhere, it is not hard to see networks (broadcast and cable) deciding some of the current crop of late-night comedy shows simply aren’t worth the financial investment anymore. Before taking such drastic action, platforms ought to be urgently experimenting with new ways of getting such shows in front of viewers. If WarnerMedia can figure out how to put blockbuster movies on HBO Max the same day they hit theaters, anything is possible.

What Will TV’s Next Four Years Look Like?