Trump Jokes Are Paying Off for Late-Night Shows, With Soaring Ratings and Ad Revenue

Post-inauguration, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee are on fire

Late-night hosts skewer Trump in style.
Illustration: ChefBoyRG; Sources: Getty Images, NBC, Fotosearch RF

Two months into his presidency, Donald Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” isn’t turning out quite as he had anticipated, but he’s certainly already made late-night comedy shows lucrative again.

Since Trump’s inauguration in January, the late-night talk shows that skewer him the most mercilessly are seeing big ratings gains—including The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah—and an accompanying increase in scatter market ad revenue.

Leading the charge is Colbert, whose program has been the No. 1 show in late night for six consecutive weeks, a 23 percent year-over-year increase in total viewers. The week of March 6, The Late Show had its largest weekly audience since its premiere week in September 2015. (Fallon, whose Tonight Show continues to maintain a healthy lead in the 18-49 demo race, has never been political on his show, but the host still hasn’t recovered from the backlash he received after tousling Trump’s hair during a September appearance.)

“The general rule of thumb is the advertiser dollars follow the eyeballs, and he’s getting more and more eyeballs,” said Jo Ann Ross, president of network sales for CBS, of Colbert. “We’re very happy with what’s going on versus where we were at this time last year.”

That’s because a year ago, Ross and her team couldn’t take advantage of the white-hot scatter market, as they were forced to give out makegoods to compensate for Colbert’s soft debut in fall 2015. “It’s nice to not be hamstrung by audience deficiencies, and actually be out there in the scatter market. Advertisers are responding very positively,” said Marty Daly, svp and director of news and late-night sales for CBS. This year has seen an advertising increase among quick-service restaurants, wireless, internet and pharmaceutical brands.

After its early creative stumbles, the Late Show installed Chris Licht as showrunner last April—allowing Colbert to focus solely on being funny—and finally found its footing last summer with its live post-political convention episodes. Since then, “we had a real resurgence of credibility there, and we also saw an uptick in the request for integrations,” said Daly.

“The general rule of thumb is the advertiser dollars follow the eyeballs, and he’s getting more and more eyeballs.”
-Jo Ann Ross, president of network sales for CBS, on Stephen Colbert

Colbert isn’t the only Daily Show alum seeing a Trump bump in 2017. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is the No. 1 late-night show in adults 18-34 this year (it’s considered a late-night show even though it airs at 10:30), and its 18-49 ratings have almost doubled year over year. Those increases are fueled not only by the Trump presidency but also the show’s shift in January from Monday to Wednesday nights.

“Moving her to Wednesday was a nice pop for us,” said Donna Speciale, president of ad sales for Turner. Advertisers “had to get to know her first. But now that they know her style, it’s just been on fire.”

Full Frontal has picked up more than 20 new brands since the inauguration, including airlines and alcoholic beverages, and the show’s move to Wednesday, closer to the weekend, “makes it more of a hot property” for theatrical advertisers as well, said Speciale.

Meanwhile, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah had its highest-rated month ever in February among total viewers (1.5 million) and adults 18-49 (0.74 rating), with digital viewing up 42 percent year over year. “We’re not surprised that we’ve seen an uptick in advertiser interest in The Daily Show since the election. Trevor has been on fire lately, getting more national coverage than ever,” said Sean Moran, head of marketing and partner solutions at Viacom. That program has seen new advertisers in the auto supply, restaurant, distilled spirits and food products categories.

The Trump-related late-night ratings gains aren’t restricted to talk shows. Saturday Night Live’s Feb. 11 episode, hosted by Alec Baldwin and featuring Melissa McCarthy’s second appearance as White House press secretary Sean Spicer, was its most-watched telecast in six years, and the show’s ratings are up 21 percent in 18-49 and 26 percent in total viewers compared to last season.

“Historically, we’ve always gotten a bump in an election year,” Mark Marshall, evp of entertainment group advertising sales for NBCUniversal, said last month. But this season, “the bump has gone well beyond the halo of the election. The demand for the show has been through the roof and it’s sold out every week.”

Buyers are thrilled by the late-night ratings surge, and said they and their clients aren’t worried that the programs’ political-themed content could alienate some viewers (for example, given the theme of those shows, Trump supporters). “You have to go into any of this programming with the understanding that there could at times be topical subjects that are treated humorously and could be controversial. I don’t think anybody has any illusions about that,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast at OMD. “These programs haven’t fundamentally changed; they’re just being more viewed now” in light of current events.

While networks are happily collecting their scatter revenue for now, they’re already looking forward to taking advantage of these shows’ continued ratings momentum in the coming upfronts. Said Ross, “I’ll go back to how I opened: dollars follow eyeballs.”

This story first appeared in the March 20, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.