Late-Night Laughs: Inside The Ratings Battle Among Colbert, Kimmel & Fallon

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  • Jimmy Fallon
    Jimmy Fallon
    American comedian
  • Jimmy Kimmel
    Jimmy Kimmel
    American talk show host and comedian
  • Stephen Colbert
    Stephen Colbert
    American comedian
  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States

The first night that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert beat The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in total viewers after his opening night, the bespectacled host sprung for pizza for his crew.

That was the first week of February 2017, not long after Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America.

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One has to assume that some members of the team are sick of pepperoni pie as the CBS has continued its late-night ratings dominance over the past four years.

However, with Joe Biden’s inauguration next week, late-night observers question whether there will be another shift in the long-running ratings battle between The Late Show and The Tonight Show. There is also the question of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which is now in the middle of its competitors.

The Late Show, with 3.46 million average viewers, won the 2019-20 broadcast season, which ran from September 2019 through September 2020. This marked its fourth consecutive win, the show’s longest winning streak and largest margin of victory over The Tonight Show, which averaged 1.94M, since 1993-94.

This has continued over the last four months with data from Nielsen showing that through January 8, The Late Show averaged 3.1M viewers against Jimmy Kimmel Live! with 1.78M and The Tonight Show with 1.56M viewers. These are what Nielsen calls “Most Current” numbers, a combination of Live+7, Live+3 and Live+Same Day.

It’s closer, however, in the demos, with The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! averaging 0.3% and The Late Show averaging 0.4% using L+7 data through January 8.

The Late Show has benefited from a wild four years in politics with the former host of The Colbert Report becoming a trusted voice against the corruption and dishonesty of the Trump administration. There’s little doubt that Colbert’s nightly ripostes of the president have helped him against Fallon’s more entertainment-focused show, with Kimmel standing somewhere in the middle of politics and silliness.

“Stephen Colbert is best when he’s political. Jimmy Fallon is best when he’s talking about pop culture,” said one late-night source. “Political culture became pop culture [over the last four years] so it makes sense that a Kimmel or a Colbert, who are more politically minded, are going to do better when it’s all politics.”

All of these numbers are a far cry from when over 20M viewers were watching Tiny Tim marry Miss Vicki on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1969.

There is a glimmer of hope for NBC, however, as many in the late-night world expect a bit more frivolity to appear on screens as we move into a Biden administration.

Over the last nine weeks of the year, including after Biden’s election win, The Tonight Show was No. 1 in the adults 18-49 demographic in six of those weeks when it came to L+SD numbers. Live+7 figures have The Late Show still winning the 18-49 demo in that period, apart from a tie in the last week of November. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! also won the Live+7 18-49 demo in the last week of September and first week of October, helped by coming off the back of the NBA playoffs.

The Tonight Show insiders also point to its digital fanbase. The NBC show has 27M subscribers on YouTube, ahead of The Late Late Show with 25.6M, 17.6M for Jimmy Kimmel Live! and 8.29M for The Late Show. Fallon is also leading on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

But while sketches such as The Tonight Show’s 2020: The Musical, which saw Andrew Rannells and Fallon recap the year with Broadway songs, scored 2.7M views on the Google-owned video platform, it’s still clips making fun of Donald Trump that score best for all three hosts; Colbert amassed 11M views on YouTube for his live monologue on Wednesday, January 6 after the attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

Last Friday, The Late Show was watched by 3.8M viewers – its largest three-day audience since November 2019 — and it will be interesting to see whether this continues over the next 12 months, or whether late-night viewers will look to The Tonight Show for laughs. It may depend on whether political tensions in the U.S. die down over the coming months.

The ratings battle between The Late Show and The Tonight Show extends back to 1993 and there were fluctuations before Jay Leno ultimately sailed past David Letterman. Back in 2003, NBC boss Jeff Zucker said “There is no more late-night war,” but that’s evidently not been the case over the last four years. We’ll see if it continues.

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Lilly Singh returned with A Little Late for the first time in eight months. The Canadian comedian showed viewers how she was now filming her 1:30 a.m. show in a house in L.A. rather than in a studio. She mixed sketches with interviews and also gently mocked her late time slot, as well as her budget, during her opening night and being off the air for nearly a year.

“We thought we were so smart, we’d bank this evergreen content, we can air it whenever, it will always make sense. And then a literal global pandemic hit and I was the only show that had a live audience. Literally every day in Season 1, I would get a million tweets that say ‘Why do you have a live audience’ and ‘Why are you not wearing a mask’? I filmed those episodes back in 2019 when the only people wearing masks were robbers and Jim Carrey,” she said.

Elsewhere, it was generally business as usual for the hosts ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Late Night’s Seth Meyers looked at Trump moving out of the White House, Colbert talked about the threat of more violence and Kimmel basked in Trump’s second impeachment.

Fallon put Anthony Mackie’s robot skills to the test, while Chris Rock was on The Late Show.

There were also some inter-late-night host appearances; Singh appeared on The Tonight Show, while Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee turned up on The Late Show.

Finally, ahead of the return of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Tuesday, the Comedy Central show posted a video of Jordan Klepper’s experiences during the Capitol attacks. It’s funny and terrifying.

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