Late Night TV Ratings Confirm Wider Trend of Politicization

In 2017, everything is political.

This year’s November sweeps ratings—a key Nielsen metric for measuring the audience of television shows—confirms what media columnists have been speculating since the election of Donald Trump one year ago: politics sells on late night television.

According to the latest Nielsen ratings, CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has jumped over NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” in total viewers for the fall, while ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” has shrunk the gap between second and third place in the ratings.  Though Fallon still leads in the key 18-49 age demographic, that lead is shrinking as well.

The New York Times graphical representation of Nielsen data

Fallon’s Fall

Before the election of Donald Trump, Jimmy Fallon was the king of late night television.  He consistently lead in ratings and was known for his light-hearted, viral, YouTube-ready segments with celebrities.

But as the general election began to grow more competitive, Fallon was criticized for his treatment of then President-elect Donald Trump, notably drawing ire from critics for asking Trump if he could mess with his hair.

In an interview with the New York Times last year, Fallon said,“They have a right to be mad…If I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn’t like it. I got it.”

But this year’s sweeps seem to reveal that viewers have are switching away from Fallon’s late night program.  

Fallon, who gained fame for his silliness on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” was never known for his political chops. While Fallon has increased the political discussion on his show, delivering a tearful monologue after the events in Charlottesville, he told Today in an interview,It’s just not what I do. I think it’d be weird for me to start doing it now.”

Colbert’s Climb to the Top

Contrastingly, Stephen Colbert was known nationwide for his political humor on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” long before he took the reins of “The Late Show” from David Letterman on CBS in 2015. His ratings struggled initially as he adjusted to the larger stage of mainstream late night television.  

However, the rise of Donald Trump was opportune for Colbert. Showcasing his clever political comedy, Colbert soon jumped into first place in the battle for late night viewers. He’s even approaching Fallon in the younger demographic, confirming widespread appeal.

Over the summer, Colbert built up his audience with his nightly takedowns of Trump and his clever analysis of daily news, buoyed by occasional cameos by Colbert’s friend and former colleague at Comedy Central Jon Stewart. While some thought Colbert’s dominance was just a fad, the November sweeps suggest that as long as political news dominates the national conversation, Colbert will as well.

Kimmel Keeps Up by Embracing The Political Moment


Meanwhile, Jimmy Kimmel’s rise as a political commentator has gone largely under the radar. Originally a prankster and radio host, Kimmel is new to the political comedy scene. While his show has achieved critical acclaim and virality for its “Mean Tweets” segments, in recent months Kimmel has positioned himself at the center of national political debates.

Kimmel became a national figure in the debate over the Affordable Care Act repeal after sharing a personal testimony about his son’s heart complications. His viral monologue even lead to Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) declaring the importance of the “Jimmy Kimmel test” when deciding upon possible replacement legislation.

Kimmel, a Las Vegas native, also spoke out in the aftermath of the nation’s deadliest mass shooting that left 58 dead. He called for more gun control in an emotional monologue that has been watched over 9 million times on Youtube.  

Just this week, Kimmel waded into Alabama Senate race. The race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones to fill the seat left vacant by Attorney General Jeff Sessions has received national attention since the Washington Post’s bombshell report detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore.  

Kimmel told a CBS News correspondent that it is okay if he loses Republican viewers in response to his opinions on issues like healthcare and gun control.

The ratings affirm that while still lagging behind his competitors on CBS and NBC, Kimmel’s embrace of politics has caused his ratings to increase.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat.” said Kimmel.

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