Social Skills a Must for Late Night TV

By Steve Safran 

James Corden and AdeleWhen Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was cancelled this month, it wasn’t just bad news for his fans. It was also proof you need something more in late-night besides a smart and funny show. You need a strong social media effort. This isn’t to say the show’s lack of a social media push doomed it; but there’s strong evidence now that even the most talented hosts can’t get by with “just” a good TV show.

Wilmore’s show replaced The Colbert Report, when Stephen Colbert moved to CBS to host The Late Show. But Colbert’s show is also flagging. Just before the summer conventions, Colbert was hitting viewership lows. According to The Wrap, Colbert had about two million viewers a night, while NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon had 3.3 million and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live had 2.5 million nightly viewers. Colbert has bounced back a little, but he’s still in the low two millions.

And here we have to wonder whether Colbert’s lack of a strong social media following is hurting him. The Late Show has a YouTube channel, but it’s not compelling. It says something that the most-watched video on the show’s YouTube channel is the 13 minute tour-de-force of Jon Stewart taking over Stephen’s desk during the show’s coverage of the Republican National Convention in July. That video has been watched 14 million times. Colbert’s YouTube Channel has 1.5 million subscribers.

Contrast these numbers with the social media work of the man whose show follows Colbert. The Late Late Show with James Corden airs at 12:35 a.m. on CBS. Expectations had to be low for a man that was a near-unknown to American audiences. But here he is, killing it with social media. Corden has almost five times as many YouTube channel subscribers as Colbert and has seen 1.7 billion views on his channel.  And he’s not even a year and a half into hosting his show.

Corden’s Carpool Karaoke videos are guaranteed to do tens of millions of views. (The one with Adele is his most-watched video overall, with 125 million.) McDonald’s pays to be the location Corden drives to, so the bit is a standalone money maker. His other clip-worthy bits work well, too. “Drop the Mic,” and an ongoing bit where Corden gets celebrities to act out all their films in just a few minutes are perfect for YouTube.

This may sound like repurposing. In a way, it is, but in the other direction. These seem to be created as viral videos first, which then happen to be shown on the broadcast. That’s part of the show’s strategy, according to an article in The Guardian:

“When I get in in the morning I will check our  YouTube hits before I check our overnights [ratings],” said Ben Winston, the man behind Corden’s hit The Late Late Show.

“The overnights just tell us who managed to stay awake. The YouTube hits tell us which bits flew,” he told an audience at the Edinburgh Television Festival.

Those overnights look strong. Corden comes in a little behind NBC’s 12:30 a.m. Late Night with Seth Meyers, but loses much less of his lead-in. Meyers needs to step up his social media work. His YouTube channel has less than a tenth of Corden’s subscribers.

The other 11:35 p.m. network guys,  Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, are also duking it out on social media, with Fallon getting the edge because he’s, well, edgier. Kimmel is a good talk show host, but Fallon is an entertainer. His bits are tailor-made for YouTube. 12 million people subscribe to Fallon’s YouTube channel, compared to Kimmel’s 8 million. Fallon’s channel is segmented into ready-for-social bits: “Lip Sync Battles,” “Wheel of Musical Impressions,” and “Hashtags” join content made just for the web like “Tales from Backstage.” Fallon sings, dances and does skits – his SNL roots are on full display.

It wasn’t so long ago that networks feared YouTube and social media because they thought it “cannibalized” the TV show. Now social media skills are proving to be a critical part of a late night show’s strategy, both for the show’s ratings and its overall revenue.