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May 10, 2017

Late Night Television in the Trump Era

In their first 100 days in office, the new Trump administration has had quite an impact on the late night television ratings war.

In their first 100 days in office, the new Trump administration has had quite an impact on the late night television ratings war. Prior to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump the late night television ratings leader was Jimmy Fallon (“The Tonight Show”) who was consistently beating both Jimmy Kimmel (ABC) and Stephen Colbert (CBS) in total viewers and with Adults 18-49. Since the inauguration, “The Late Show” has made major strides in the ratings war and at the end of 1Q 2017 the program was number one in late night with total viewers. “The Late Show” has beaten all of its competitors, and there are quite a few, in total viewers for 13 straight weeks. The Late Show’s gains in viewership are primarily due to the shows satire of the Trump administration. While Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have often mocked Trump in their monologues and aired occasional comedy bits about the new administration, Colbert has been relentless in discussing the latest headlines about the President and his team every day from the show’s opening, through the monologue and typically into in-depth political segments that are reminiscent of his days at Comedy Central.

Colbert and other late-night talk show hosts are being lifted by the wave of TV viewers turning to late-night comedy to cope with their angst over the new administration. Other hosts who focus on politics like HBO’s Bill Maher and John Oliver, TBS’ Samantha Bee and Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah are all experiencing significant ratings increases post-election. “The Daily Show” is on track to have its best quarterly ratings since Noah took over for Jon Stewart as host while Bee’s “Full Frontal,” has become the most-watched late-night show among Adults 18- 34 just one year after its launch. “Real Time with Bill Maher” has seen a 52% increase in its ratings compared with the first quarter of 2016.

Colbert and Maher have recently taken the hostility up a notch. Just last week Colbert got himself into a bit of trouble with the FCC for a joke he made while defending fellow CBS “Face The Nation” host John Dickerson. Colbert launched into a series of taunts and insults about the President ultimately using graphic language that was bleeped for the viewers at home. The FCC is conducting an investigation after receiving complaints about Colbert. Days later, Bill Maher also received some negative backlash on social media for a joke he made about the President and his daughter. While Maher is on HBO, which has much looser guidelines in terms of content, both incidences showcase the unprecedented number and intensity of jokes being made about the new administration. A study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found that Trump has far outpaced the previous three presidents as a target for humor by late night comedians in his first 100 days. Researchers found 1,060 Trump jokes, compared to 936 about Obama, 546 about Bush, and 440 about Clinton during the entire first year of their first terms.

On the flip side, both Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver have recently used their programs to show that comedy can also have a real impact on policies. Jimmy Kimmel recently shared a story about his newborn son who was born with a heart defect and had to undergo emergency surgery.  Kimmel ended his tale with an emotional plea to Congress not to cut funding to protect those with pre-existing conditions. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy said his support for an Obamacare replacement would hinge on whether or not it passes “The Jimmy Kimmel Test.” John Oliver has rallied his viewers around a cause near and dear to his heart, net neutrality or Free Internet for all. He implored his viewers to flood the FCC’s comments inbox with defenses of a free Internet which they did, ultimately crashing the website.

With the new president has come a new sense of urgency in late night television. Time will tell if viewers will continue to crave the harsher, cruder jokes about the current administration. Given the current pace of things, it’s hard to imagine the punch line will be changing anytime soon.