Fallon vs. Colbert: The role of politics in popularity during the 11:30 p.m. time slot


Jimmy Fallon is a nice guy. An SNL alum, he moved from Late Night to the Tonight Show in 2014. He’s known for his light-hearted interviews, silly games, and utter praise of every guest that appears on his show. In an non-opinionated, almost robotic way, he steers clear of any sort of controversial issues on his show each evening at 11:30 p.m. Enter Stephen Colbert — he gained notoriety on Comedy Central’s the Daily Show, graduated to the Colbert Report, then took over the Late Show on CBS in 2015. He’s known for being politically outspoken, and he even semi-jokingly ran for president in 2008.

Two very different late night hosts, one time slot.

Fallon’s cable numbers have been lagging behind Colbert’s since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, and his margin of loss continues to grow each week (NY Post). In Colbert’s first week of new shows since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, he beat Fallon by a mere 10,000 viewers, but the following week, his margin of success grew to 130,000 viewers. Nielsen reported in the week of Feb. 17, that the average episode of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” pulled in 3 million viewers, while Fallon Tonight pulled in 2.71 million.

Using data taken on February 23, 2017, and covering the time span of February 14–21, 2017, Fallon and Colbert’s digital content was coded for the presence of political themes. Out of one week’s worth of YouTube content, 50% of Colbert’s videos were political, while only 13.16% of Fallon’s video had the presence of political themes. It is clear, then, that Fallon has taken a strongly apolitical stance in the time following President Trump’s inauguration.

Fallon’s traditional TV ratings are slowly slipping. Is Fallon’s digital presence faltering as well?

Traditional television shows distribute content in a broader, more digitally-oriented way in 2017. Along with traditional broadcasting, NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon also streams their full shows on nbc.com and uploads individual segments to YouTube.com. They upload approximately 6.8 videos to YouTube each weekday. The official Fallon Tonight twitter tweets out gifs, promotional photos, and links to both the Facebook and YouTube videos. On CBS in the same timeslot, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert reaches its audience in a similar manner. Their full shows are also available on cbs.com, and they cut out individual segments and upload them to YouTube on a regular basis. Both shows use social media channels to distribute content outside of the traditional show (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, snapchat, Instagram) and to connect with the audience.

Fallon Tonight has a larger digital following than the Late Show with Colbert, which may be partially due to Colbert’s debut roughly a year and a half after Fallon (September 2015 vs. February 2014). Colbert has only a fifth of Fallon’s YouTube subscribers, but his videos get nearly 200,000 more views than Fallon’s on average. Two explanations for this are that Colbert’s viewers are far more active than Fallon’s viewers, and that Colbert’s content is shared outside the realm of his loyal viewers far more than Fallon’s content is shared.

Shows that follow the YouTube clip method have a level of editorial control. If a segment during the live broadcasted goes awfully, they could elect to not upload it to YouTube, and if a segment goes really well, they can elect to upload it to Facebook as well. Fallon Tonight only publishes a handful of videos to Facebook, while they publish nearly every segment from nightly shows on their YouTube page. Only 13% of YouTube videos are also uploaded to Facebook, and out of the data sample taken, 20% of videos were political. The other 80% uploaded were lighthearted games and interviews.

In the Colbert camp, 19.51% of videos published to YouTube also made their way to Facebook, and 75% of them were political. Colbert’s Facebook videos only got 2.1% of the amount of views that Fallon’s videos did, and even after removing one viral outlier with 48 million views, they still got only 23% of Fallon’s views. Colbert’s audience is on YouTube; Fallon’s is on Facebook.

Comparing views of Fallon’s videos uploaded to Facebook versus videos uploaded to YouTube, Facebook outperforms YouTube in terms of views 80% of the time. It is apparent, then, that Fallon’s audience is predominately on Facebook. The average views on a Fallon Facebook video is roughly 10 million, possibly impacted by one particular video of Robert Irwin that went viral with 48 million views. Even with this outlier removed, Fallon’s Facebook videos still outperform his YouTube Videos on average — his audience is on Facebook. Colbert’s audience, however, consumes more YouTube content than Facebook content. Even though he has fewer subscribers, his average views (829,333) are noticeably higher than Fallon’s (651,171).

Looking at comments per views on Fallon’s YouTube videos gives a solid indicator of the engagement rate of Fallon’s audience. On average, over a one week period, Fallon Tonight’s videos have a .11% engagement rate. Surprisingly, Stephen Colbert’s audience on YouTube has an engagement rate of .16%, which is almost the as Fallon’s YouTube. Their Facebook audience engagement is roughly the same, with Colbert at a marginal advantage once again. Fallon pulls a 1.11% engagement rate, and Colbert a rate of 1.85% engagement. For the sake of this report, watching a video is not considered engagement in itself. Engagement in this context is calculated by seeing how many people who watched the video also liked/disliked the video.

Colbert’s politically-charged content lends itself to being shared by liberal-leaning twitter users and bloggers, many of which may have a great reach on social networks. Fallon’s light-hearted, soft content lends itself to be shared by a different kind of audience, many of which are looking for a feel-good story to drown out the current political climate.

The smaller amount of views on Fallon’s YouTube videos, though, shows that the demand for politically-charged content is greater than the demand for silly content. Fallon’s subscriber-to-views ratio is dismal compared to Colbert’s. Colbert’s content is having a greater impact in the internet world and the realm of politics because of Colbert’s willingness to address political issues with humor rather than avoiding them altogether.

Note: in the midst of working on this project, Huffington Post published an article titled “Jimmy Fallon Never Recovered From His Disastrous Trump Interview.” In it, the author argues that Fallon embarrassed himself by 1) allowing Trump on his show, 2) not questioning him about his destructive policies and 3) literally tussling his hair. The author acknowledges that factors outside of politics may be at play in regards to Fallon’s declining TV ratings, but notes that “hard to ignore that Fallon has lost an average of 500,000 viewers a night between the week of Fallon’s interview with Trump and this last one, just as it is hard to ignore that Colbert has gained 850,000.” It is also hard to ignore that his digital presence is experiencing a decline as well.

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