With time slots less important than ever, networks are monetizing comedy clips and segments all over the social internet.
A quarter century ago, when Jay Leno and David Letterman vied publicly to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show, the program's venerable brand wasn't the only prize they coveted.
Letterman — who'd built the long-forsaken 12:30 a.m. time period into a must-see for college students and other night owls — wanted The Tonight Show's more mainstream 11:30 p.m. time slot. His longtime friend Leno, of course, was in the way.
From today's perspective, their battle appears somewhat anachronistic — and not just because both men have retired from late night (though Letterman has resurfaced with a one-on-one talk show on Netflix, while Leno indulges his car crush on CNBC with Jay Leno's Garage). In the era of the social internet, the whole notion of late night is being called into question. Time periods are less important than ever.
It's no secret that digital platforms are changing how we watch television. Primetime series have seen their ad bases and lucrative syndication market undermined by binge viewing on subscription-based, on-demand platforms like Netflix.
Late night has faced a slightly different but equally disruptive digital fate — getting chopped up into clips and splattered all over YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and other social platforms. These clips might be viewed at night, but they're available at all hours of the day.
Back in 2015, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke shocked the industry by revealing that 70 percent of viewing for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon was occurring via clips on digital platforms — and not being monetized. "This isn't going to last forever," Burke told investors. "Measurement and monetization are only going to get better." In fact, the tide was already turning.
Jump forward three years, and competition in late-night comedy is thriving, boosted by the nightly lampooning of an unpopular president. From production to audience measurement to ad sales, networks are starting to make the social internet work for them, not against them.
"The digital audience is bigger than the linear audience, [because of] the many ways users can engage with the show across the platform most relevant to them," says Rob Hayes, head of digital at NBC Entertainment. And it's not just about clips anymore, he points out. Viewers also watch full episodes of The Tonight Show on NBC.com, the NBC app and Hulu. There's no getting around it: time periods no longer matter nearly as much as a well-planned, well-executed digital strategy.
"We distribute and monetize clips across a network of partners, including YouTube and Facebook," says Marc DeBevoise, president and COO of CBS Interactive, describing the network's strategy for selling The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show with James Corden.
"We approach digital as a collaborative effort between the shows, studio, network and interactive teams, and across platforms we are now measuring and monetizing most, if not all, the viewership for our shows. We look at [digital] platforms as great marketing channels that we can also monetize."
Network late night was actually instrumental in building the social video paradigm, and in a very real sense, the genre ended up disrupting itself.
Sharing clips from late-night shows dates back to the dawn of YouTube, and it's debatable whether the Google-owned platform would have grown as huge without this content. In December 2005, relative unknown Andy Samberg and his partners in the Lonely Island comedy trio were trying desperately to crack Lorne Michaels's code and get airtime on Saturday Night Live. Their Beastie Boys–inspired short, "Lazy Sunday," became one of the first viral hits on the newly launched YouTube platform.
In fact, by the end of the first full week after its airing on SNL, the two- minute, 18-second clip — which tracks Samberg and costar Chris Parnell's rap-and cupcake-fueled journey through New York City to see The Chronicles of Narnia — had been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. The platform's overall traffic jumped 83 percent that week.
It took several years of rampant piracy and perhaps billions of dollars of uncounted and unmonetized viewership for the networks and producers to wrap their heads around what had happened. But slowly, they began to shut down unauthorized postings of their clips and centralize their assets on their own YouTube accounts. They also began to study other emerging social platforms — like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat — to get ahead of the curve.
Most of all, with viewers heading to bed earlier, networks started adapting how they produced shows, creating segments with viral potential and posting them quickly.
"Speed is of the essence — we make sure we get our SNL clips up immediately after 1 a.m. on the East Coast," Hayes says. "We're focused on short-form and social. Before I got here [in 2012], we were focused on domain — driving people to the [NBC] website. But it's not about that anymore. We have to make our content available so people can see it."
Pretty soon, every major late-night show had at least one viral hit to boast about — a clip that, unlike the disposable daily churn of the linear broadcast, would be immortalized on the internet, where it could enjoy the benefits of "long tail" viewership.
In early November 2011, for example, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live posted a clip montage of parents telling their distraught children that they'd eaten all of their Halloween candy. That video has generated more than 60 million views and is still going.
In December 2013, TBS late-night host Conan O'Brien posted a video of himself sharing a Lyft ride with rapper-actor-producer Ice Cube and comedian-actor Kevin Hart. That clip has generated more than 41 million views to date.
And in April 2014, Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show lip-sync battle with actress Emma Stone hit YouTube, where it has garnered nearly 88 million views so far.
These days, late-night success isn't measured so much in Nielsen ratings but in YouTube channel subscriber counts. Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show channel, despite a recent slump, remains the genre leader with 15.8 million subs. ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live is in second place with 11.3 million. TBS's "Team Coco" YouTube channel, home of all things Conan O'Brien, is in third place with 5.6 million.
Catching up in the post-Letterman era, CBS's The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has expanded its YouTube channel subscribers to 4 million.
The shift in viewing habits has not only caused networks to rethink how they produce, package and distribute late night, it has changed the talent. With icons Leno and Letterman retired, the airwaves are now home to younger comics who came of age with the internet and are perhaps more willing to experiment with new paradigms.
O'Brien's deal with Turner Networks last year is a prime example: the comic agreed to create content for digital platforms, such as podcasts and mobile gaming, as well as pay-TV specials and live tours. TNT president Kevin Reilly has said that over time, he envisions O'Brien pulling back from the late-night show into a more specials-driven programming format.
"The TV landscape has changed dramatically since I inherited the traditional talk show format in 1993," O'Brien said when announcing his new deal. "In the past few years I've stumbled across many new and exciting ways of connecting with my audience, and I'm eager to evolve my show into something leaner, more agile and more unpredictable."
The ascendancy of YouTube largely caught the major networks off guard in the latter half of the '00s, and they spent the period from around 2010 to 2015 playing catch-up.
First and foremost, the networks had to keep YouTube users from treating network shows like user-generated content. That meant serving takedown notices to myriad unlicensed clip postings, and getting the platform to enforce those actions.
NBC, for example, spent several years making sure all of Fallon's clips were consolidated onto its own YouTube channel, but it wasn't until 2015 that NBC forged an agreement with YouTube to monetize the content by jointly selling ads. Research firm OpenSlate estimated in 2015 that the Jimmy Fallon YouTube channel was generating a genre-leading $500,000 to $600,000 a month, and up to $7.2 million a year, of ad revenue.
Of course, the unhappy part of that scenario for NBCUniversal was that those figures incorporate Google's standard 45 percent YouTube cut. The major networks are notoriously loath to discuss their dealings with YouTube, but by all accounts, they haven't gotten Google to budge on that steep percentage.
Happily for the networks, their sales teams have found a work-around: Madison Avenue integrates products into segments of the late-night shows themselves. So after Colbert flashed the logo for allergy medication Xyzal in a recent segment, that integrated ad appeared on every platform that ultimately hosted the clip.
Also working for broadcasters: platforms like Facebook and Snapchat are still in the relatively early stages of becoming video distributors. This gives the networks an opportunity to learn from their mistakes with YouTube and get in on the ground floor with newer platforms.
"Starting around five years ago, we began to invest heavily in our technology and distribution models," Hayes explains. "We really started following what was going on in Silicon Valley. We needed to build scale on these platforms that were growing and evolving."
Notably, NBCU invested $500 million in Snapchat last year, giving the media giant vested control of how its shows are presented and monetized on the very youth-centric social media platform.
Hayes oversees a digital team of around 200 staffers (fluctuating with on-call freelancers), spread across New York and Los Angeles. Some are embedded in the production teams of The Tonight Show and Late Night.
YouTube may remain the biggest online distribution channel, but Hayes says the NBC Digital team is actively trying to develop others. "Facebook is a huge platform at a scale that encourages sharing favorite show moments with friends and family, while Twitter is an ideal platform for real-time [viewing] during the show, shorter-form video, photos and GIFs.
"Instagram is ideal for visual experiences," he adds, "whether that's short video, memes or Instagram Stories that allow Fallon and the show a new form of visual storytelling that's made for mobile, snackable entertainment."
While the networks have made major strides over the past five years in evolving late-night properties to fit the habits of a largely millennial viewer base, there's still plenty of work to do. Broadcasters and their research partners, most notably Nielsen, are getting closer to being able to count show audiences across the atomized landscape of digital platforms.
"NBCUniversal speaks to the advertising marketplace about a holistic premium video approach that is 'screen agnostic, platform specific' in the ads that are placed around the company's content," Hayes says. "Using currently available tools, we report to our advertising partners viewership on as many platforms as possible."
Even so, with the TV industry still reliant on Nielsen's C3 metric, which measures linear TV viewing of commercial time up to three days after live broadcast, very few network executives are happy about the current state of viewer measurement in late night — or in any day part, for that matter. Says Hayes: "A C3 currency doesn't help advertisers in today's world of time-shifted viewing."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018