SNL Will Continue Airing Live in All Time Zones This Season After Winning 9 Emmys

It was one of NBCUniversal’s most-coveted shows in this year’s upfront

SNL was one of NBCUniversal's hottest upfront properties, and just won nine Emmys, more than any other program.
Will Heath/NBC

When Saturday Night Live returns on Sept. 30, much will have changed in the world since it last aired in May—for starters, last season’s frequent comic targets Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer are no longer working in the White House. But one important thing will remain the same: the sketch comedy show will once again air live in all time zones, just as it did for last season’s final four episodes, NBC announced today.

NBC said last season’s live coast-to-coast airings resulted in an 11 percent jump in average live-plus-same-day viewers compared to earlier in the season, rising from 7.5 million to 8.3 million.

SNL had its highest ratings in 23 years last season, and just won nine Emmys—more than any other program—including outstanding variety series, and acting trophies for Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, as well as guest hosts Melissa McCarthy and Dave Chappelle.

Ryan Gosling will host the Season 43 premiere on Sept. 30, with Jay-Z as musical guest.

Last month, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt told Adweek that he and SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels were “leaning towards” airing the show live across the country again, but hadn’t yet finalized the details.

At that time, Greenblatt wasn’t sure whether he would commit to the all-time-zone scheduling for the entire 2017-18 season, or just a few episodes. “I would love to be able to say we’re doing it every week,” Greenblatt said. “We’re not quite there yet, but that’s where we’re headed.”

The only holdup in discussions, the network chief said, was that in some time zones, SNL would air as early as 8:30 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. That’s outside the FCC’s “safe harbor” period between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. local time, in which stations can air “indecent and/or profane material,” and allows SNL to get away with racier content.

Explained Greenblatt, “I don’t want to hamstring them about, ‘oh, you can’t do this, and if you do this, we’re going to bleep that, because it’s prime time.’ It’s not a huge part of the footprint, but enough to be a concern.”

Michaels didn’t have to be persuaded to continue airing his show live across the country. “He likes the idea—if we don’t put constraints on the show—because he loves the idea of being live everywhere,” said Greenblatt.

In her Adweek cover interview last month, Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal’s chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, said that going live was “still under discussion” and likely wouldn’t be decided by until “early September.” Despite advertisers’ frenzy around the red-hot show, the move was “a content decision,” not a business one, said Yaccarino.

While Yaccarino aggressively sold Saturday Night Live in last year’s upfront, “In hindsight, as provocative as it looked back then, on a post-analysis basis, Saturday Night Live was one of the most efficient things that any advertiser invested in,” given that it had its highest-rated season in 23 years,” she said. “So as much of an increase in CPM that we asked people to pay for, the ratings went up to such an extraordinary degree, it was one of the most efficient, highest ROI of any piece of content they can invest in.”

During this year’s upfront, SNL was one of Yaccarino’s most coveted properties among buyers, alongside This Is Us and NBC’s Sunday and Thursday Night Football packages.

Yaccarino said that while none of the branded content spots planned for SNL last season ended up airing, she’s still hopeful that her team will pull together new brand partnerships this year. “We continue to be in very robust conversations with advertisers, and the [SNL] writing team is very engaged and continuing those conversations,” she said. “Content comes first, and the show is live, so it has more complications and sophistications than just doing an integration in a scripted show. The demand is overwhelming, and we continue to feel good about what we can potentially pull off this season.”

Last season, in the wake of the show’s huge ratings and instantly viral sketches like Melissa McCarthy’s surprise cameo as then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer, “I kept thinking, why should we make the West Coast wait?” Greenblatt, who approached Michaels with the idea to experiment with airing the show live in all time zones, told Adweek in May. “We don’t have anything on at 8:30 on Saturday that is so important that we couldn’t blow it out and just do it.”

So in March, NBC revealed that the season’s final four episodes would air live across the country—at 11:30 p.m. Eastern, 10:30 p.m. Central, 9:30 p.m. Mountain and 8:30 p.m. Pacific—for what the network said was the first time in its 42-season history. In the Mountain and Pacific time zones, SNL also repeated at 11:30 p.m.

NBC continued SNL’s momentum last month, airing four episodes of Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update on Thursdays in prime time. The half-hour telecast featured Weekend Update anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che, as well as other SNL cast members, another appearance from Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, and alums like Tina Fey, who suggested “sheetcaking” instead of protesting.