Why Time Slots Still Matter in Late Night

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In 2016, there’s no reason why you urgently need to watch any late night talk show the moment that it first airs. It’s all on the internet; you can go on YouTube and find the most relevant clips, and chances are, you can go to the show’s official website and watch the entire thing from start to finish. With that in mind, one would think that at this point, the time slot — one of the most hotly contested things in the late night world — wouldn’t really matter. If we can catch up with our favorite talk shows whenever we feel like, why does it really matter what times it first airs?

And yet, the time slot still seems relevant. Seven years ago, when Conan O’Brien took over for Jay Leno, we wondered if his oddball humor would still work at 11:35. It ultimately didn’t. Oh sure, the show still had plenty of funny moments, but it was clearly holding back. The result was a show that appealed neither to Conan’s longtime fans, nor the folks who had tuned in for Leno for years. It would ultimately last seven months, ended before it ever really had the chance to find a voice. Now, to get the obvious part out of the way, Jay Leno and his 10pm abomination really didn’t help, but still, Conan’s struggles in the Tonight Show showed that it really did matter what time a show came on the air, no matter how funny the person behind it was.

But hey, that was seven years ago! Surely things are different now. Well, you’d think so, especially since internet access to these shows is even more widespread than it was before, but we still find ourselves thinking about what show belongs in what time slot. Since taking over for David Letterman, Stephen Colbert has struggled with the same problems that Conan had with making his show more palatable for a mainstream audience without costing it the edge that made it so beloved to begin with. Of course, Colbert’s time slot didn’t change, it just moved to a network station. This is a key thing to understand: on cable, late night hosts can more or less push whatever limits they want, but if you’re on a network, the spot after the local news seems to be reserved for Fallon-esque populists, who are unlikely to go political, or get really absurd with their humor, but who are immensely likable. Colbert’s been trying to do that, but we know that politics are his wheelhouse, so much like Conan, it feels like he’s holding back the brilliance he’s most capable of. Admittedly, Colbert is quite likable in his own right, perhaps more than any other late night host, but when it feels like we aren’t getting his best, that can be easy to forget.

This all leads us to the point of “but if people can watch this stuff on the internet, why does 11:35 vs. 12:35 or network vs. cable even make a difference?” Well, there’s a myriad of answers to that. The most obvious answer might be older viewers. Not everyone is necessarily interested in watching clips of the show on YouTube, or the show’s official website; they’d rather just watch Fallon for a little while, then go to bed. That could be especially be true with viewers over, say, 55, who didn’t grow up with the internet. For them, it’s just not the same experience.

It would be natural to assume that younger viewers, for whom the internet is an unavoidable part of everyday life, would be far more willing to catch up on their favorite shows via the internet. But while that’s true, there’s still the issue that sitting in front of your computer and watching Fallon or Colbert in the morning before work isn’t quite the same experience as sitting in front of your TV after a long day, and winding the night down with some laughs. After all, the genre isn’t called “late night” for nothing.

Additionally, just because you tell yourself you’re going to catch up on the show you missed last night doesn’t mean you’re actually going to follow through on it. Suppose you’re normally a loyal Colbert viewer, but tonight, Fallon has a guest you really want to see. So, you watch Fallon, and then you swear you’ll watch Colbert the next night. Then, you get home from work the next day and…you don’t really feel like it. Putting a show on your TV is a natural, easy thing to do. Going on the internet and looking for last night’s episode of whatever you show you’ve missed is a more deliberate action. This is to say: it feels like work. You’re going out of the way to watch a show instead of just tuning in when it comes on. You might be willing to do this once in awhile, but doing it on a regular basis remains to be seen.

Of course, none of this is to say that the internet hasn’t changed the makeup of late night. All one has to do to illustrate that is point out the massive number of views that James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segments get. But that’s just it — it’s one segment. One can guess that only a handful of the people watched Corden sing “Someone Like You” with Adele actually decided to watch the rest of the episode. Watching the most essential clip of a given late night episode feels normal, but actually sitting down and watching the whole thing is a different story. You’re taking time out of your day to do it, and you’re subjecting yourself to all of those irritating internet commercials, which for some inexplicable reason, are far more annoying that regular commercials. The internet is a key resource for watching Colbert’s latest round of The Hungry For Power Games, or Fallon/Corden’s latest bits of them palling around with A-listers, but sitting at your computer for the entire show seems like a bridge too far.

All of this is why the timeslot is still important. Perhaps someday, the ease of watching TV over the internet will evolve even further, to the point where all television, including late night talk shows, is effectively time slot-less, but we’re not quite there just yet. That means we’re still going to be arguing about whether or not Colbert will ever make sense at 11:35, or if CBS would be better off just putting James Corden — their logical answer to Jimmy Fallon — on in his spot (note: this will become a thing in the next few years, no matter how much the Colbert fan in me doesn’t want to admit it). If you’re a fan of the inside baseball aspect of the late night world, debating things like this might be pretty fun, but for the rest of us, it’s tiresome and tedious. That being said, I wouldn’t expect it to change any time soon.

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