Where Does Linear Go From Here My Thoughts on Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, G4, NBC and CBS Late Night
The past few weeks have been a difficult time for linear television. This isn’t anything new; the past several years have been rough with the industry imploding. But in these past few weeks, there have been some high-profile departures and closures that have really made it clear change is happening.
I’ve already discussed the G4 shutdown at length here. In short, it was a business that was poorly designed and run. Comcast spent way too much money on an extravagant facility that didn’t need to be as massive as it was, shared zero resources and staff with NBCUniversal as their other cable networks already do, opted for a hybrid cable and streaming format with an audience that was largely not on cable and was confused by the approach, and banked on its established brand to do the marketing that the company did not do. The distribution of G4 on cable is an example that linear pay TV is still viable. G4 hoped to get the money back it spent on the facility and staff in part through the lucrative carriage fees and easier ability to get advertising on linear. Which is why cable TV still exists today. Popular channels with high carriage fees earn nearly $100,000,000 every month in total from all the cable operators. And that’s without factoring in advertising revenue that still earns millions of dollars per show. Cable is undoubtedly dying, but in the meantime, it’s still a source of great revenue.
So, what is a cable, and even broadcast, network to do? Advertising revenues are dropping because viewership is dropping. Although cable networks earn tens and tens of millions of dollars in carriage fees, people are dropping cable. But the networks still have an obligation to program the channels so cable operators don’t drop the networks. But what is the future of the linear network?
It’s a question NBC asked themselves. NBC has had money struggles for a few decades with the rise of cable and the 10PM hour has been in question since the late 2000s. That timeslot has typically been dramas and cop procedurals that were expensive to produce, and NBC was looking to cut costs as the 10PM hour was becoming a time where viewers were watching shows they had recorded on their DVRs. During The Tonight Show shuffle in 2009, they experimented with cheaper programming by giving Jay Leno a 10PM late-night style show so he wouldn’t go to another network to compete with Conan O’Brien. It became a disaster as talk shows have a hard time retaining viewers through the entire hour and local affiliates saw the viewership during their lucrative 11PM newscasts sometimes cut in half, and demanded NBC take action. The result was a settlement for Conan who had the cheaper contract to break, Leno was put back at 11:30, and NBC resumed traditional programming for 10PM. The experiment proved there was an audience at that time for a talk show as the 10PM ratings weren’t far off from what they had seen before, just maybe not leading into a newscast.
That question was asked again earlier this year, except by shifting the time NBC gave to affiliates by an hour to 10PM, similar to what Fox and The CW do. The move would give NBC affiliates an earlier timeslot for their newscasts, which has been great for Fox affiliates who get the jump on the main broadcast networks. Plus, it gives The Tonight Show and Late Night a larger audience earlier in the night. But what does forfeiting 10PM timeslot mean? It has implications for the viability of broadcast going forward in general and a scheduling tradition that has been around since the 1950s will be going away for one of the big three networks. It also means NBC can save money by not having to program for seven hours a week. That money can be used for programming Peacock, a service that gets a lot out of NBC.
Peacock is also the destination for NBC shows that couldn’t work on broadcast. When Peacock premiered, one of its first original programs was a new season of A.P. Bio, a critically acclaimed comedy aimed at a young audience that barely cracked above three million viewers on NBC. It didn’t seem to pick up much steam on Peacock having been cancelled after one season, but the blame can partly be placed on NBC still having its shows on Hulu, with consumers not seeing a reason to subscribe to the very new Peacock. Peacock has also become the exclusive home of Days of Our Lives, a soap opera that has been on broadcast television since 1965. That hour of television formerly taken up by the soap in daytime has now gone to NBC News, which is much cheaper to produce in comparison. The shift in programming on NBC can be noted as skewing towards cheaper, topical, and event-based programming. The primetime lineup has its drama staples which still do well, but also contains reality shows like America’s Got Talent and The Voice, as well as live events like musicals. Aside from the dramas, the shift gives cheaper shows more time on the network, since they frequently beat scripted comedies and sometimes dramas. NBC, which at one point had been known for its comedy night, found themselves unable to compete with cable and now streaming.
Speaking of comedy, another network struggling to find relevance in the new era is Comedy Central. What was once the home of upcoming and established stand-up comedians, an unbeatable late-night block with the youngest audience in the timeslot, and innovative sketch and scripted comedies is now the home of marathons of The Office and Seinfeld, with South Park and The Daily Show being the only original shows still in active production. With news of Trevor Noah leaving The Daily Show, it sparked a debate about who should take over, a question asked every time a host leaves a talk show, but for the first time also questioning the state of Comedy Central, its brand, and who would even want to take over a talk show on a linear cable channel; two formats that seem to be dying?
Comedy Central had seen declines since the mid-2010s. The shows on the network in the early-2010s would find its primetime shows reaching around one million viewers nightly with a very young audience, a lucrative combination for the network. As the mid-2010s rolled around, the young audience that made up much of Viacom’s cable channels were fleeing to streaming services like Netflix and YouTube, the former having started up a rather successful stand-up hub. Rather than properly compete and work to maintain its existing relationships with talent, the executives in charge of Viacom pressed forward with an arrogant attitude. Many of the top stars on Comedy Central had no deals signed to further their career. When Jon Stewart temporarily left The Daily Show to film a movie, Daily Show correspondent John Oliver was tasked with guest hosting the program and was successful at doing so. However, at no point did Viacom sign John Oliver to an exclusive deal. HBO, looking to see who was available to host a late-night show, began talks with John Oliver and were shocked to hear he was a free agent. The rest is history. John Oliver has debatably the most consistently viral late-night show, the only one that seems to work in the streaming space, and Viacom got nothing for their contribution to his success. Same with Samantha Bee with her move to TBS. Same with Key and Peele and Amy Schumer. All had no further deals with Viacom and went on to have success at competing studios. Why stick around with Comedy Central if there isn’t a future there?
Although I don’t believe this is the reason Trevor is leaving. Viacom realized later in life that it is no longer the company it once was and needs to maintain its relationships and grow new ones. Trevor certainly had a good deal in place as the network was blindsided by his announcement. I believe Trevor is leaving simply because the job is rough. Putting together a 45-minute show every night involves lots of work and long days. Especially when Trevor can make a ton of money touring his stand-up with more time off. The question is if the next person will be able to maintain the momentum. What will happen to a cable late-night show when the established guy leaves? They will have to not only take over an established name but try to figure out how to make it work on social networks and streaming services. Especially with Comedy Central looking to adjust the format for a new generation that isn’t watching cable, while pleasing an older generation that still is.
I don’t know if Comedy Central has much relevance left as a brand, seeing as it doesn’t need to exist in the face of brutal competition. I really don’t see anyone going crazy over its hub on Paramount+, seeing as the bulk of shows under it released prior to 2017. I’m certain they will be able to find a late-night host who doesn’t mind a steady paycheck and health insurance. The question is if they will be able to find an established name, or any name that will want to stick around.
Another network looking for a new late-night host is Comedy Central’s more successful sibling, CBS. Like NBC and ABC, the 11:30 show still does well, generally cracking over a million viewers, sometimes two, and gathering lots of buzz on social networks. The 12:30 show, however, is not as strong as it once was, with under a million viewers being the norm. 12:30 was once so popular on NBC that it could support a 1:30am show where it was common to see viewership with nearly a million watching. Those days are gone, and while 12:30 is still a priority with CBS announcing it will find a replacement for James Corden when he departs from the show, it may include some format changes.
Unlike CBS and NBC, ABC probably has the strongest 12:30 show: Nightline. It doesn’t always win the timeslot, but it is a much lower cost news show that can share resources with ABC News and has much stronger appeal for live viewers with its more topical content who are less likely to skip watching live in favor of YouTube clips the next day. The 12:30 shows on CBS and NBC have long been the target of consolidation for their networks. Both shows have their own staff of relatively expensive writers and producers, get less viewers than their 11:30 shows by the nature of their timeslot, and require a highly paid host who is skilled enough at being likeable, funny, and a great communicator. All while at any point the network could just expand the 11:30 show another half-hour, bringing in more money from advertisers and saving tens of millions of dollars by not needing two studios, sets of staff, and hosts to take care of.
The New York Times reported rumors of Seth Meyers’ show being in peril of a timeslot shift or a move to Peacock as the 12:30 shows are just not as cost effective as they once were; hence NBC’s desire to remove the 10PM hour to shift both its late-night shows earlier. While it was not surprising to hear CBS wanted to continue the show, what will be surprising is if the show maintains the same late-night standard formula. James Corden did bring a British style to the show by bringing all the night’s guests on the couch at the same time for interviews, it was otherwise a standard late-night show with a monologue, desk bit or remote piece, interviews, and closing discussion, stand-up comedian, or musical guest. James Corden had the flair that Jimmy Fallon brought with celebrity-driven sketches and games resulting in viral hits on social networking websites, but these days it’s not as easy as it once was to crack a viral hit. Couple that with the format of late-night shows making less and less sense. It was once the place to see your favorite host make jokes, hear from celebrities, and listen to music or stand-up comedy you otherwise couldn’t hear on your own. With quips on the day’s news all over the internet, celebrities oversharing on social networks, and music and stand-up comedy at the touch of a button, the format isn’t as important as it once was.
The question is how much will change at 12:30 on CBS? The rumors suggest that it will still be a comedian-driven show, but with possibly a panel of comedians or guests to keep the show fresh. There isn’t a lot of open discussion on what to do with the format seeing as Corden still hosts the show until the end of the 2023 season. So what can CBS do to generate buzz? I somewhat believe that The Daily Show should move to 12:30 on CBS. The timeslot on CBS at 12:30 gets around 800,000 viewers compared to Comedy Central at 11PM seeing 350,000, and it would give CBS late-night an established brand and a better complement to Colbert. The loss for Comedy Central would be its position as a top cable network, and the Daily Show brand being a top social media brand for Comedy Central. However, what is a top cable network these days that isn’t about sports or cable “news?” And how long can a show like The Daily Show with its staff of writers, producers, and correspondents be viable for Paramount on cable? Sure, it still sees millions of viewers on social networks, but is that enough to bring in revenue for the show?
I still see this outcome as unlikely as Paramount wants to continue to position Comedy Central as a top cable network to keep the channel in the base package on cable with its higher carriage fees. If it loses its established late-night show for a comparably cheaper and unknown brand at 11PM, it could mean the death of the network and its unrivaled reign as king of cable late-night. CBS will probably just keep the show comedian-driven, unless they decide to go the Nightline route.
The original launch of Cartoon Network came from Ted Turner’s acquisition of MGM’s library in 1986 and Hanna-Barbera in 1991. Featuring classic cartoons from the vaults of each company, just like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, Turner knew original shows were needed to fill in the lineup. In order stand-apart, Cartoon Network found success by airing more off-beat shows like anime, darker and adult-friendly cartoons, and of course the formation of Adult Swim for college-aged and young adults which found initial success by retooling the lesser-known Hanna-Barbera cartoons with surreal and strange humor. The nighttime block can also take credit for reviving Family Guy and Futurama, which were popular syndicated shows on the network.
Turner was bought by Time Warner in 1996, which renamed to WarnerMedia when it was purchased by AT&T in 2018. After a series of financial losses, AT&T decided to divest its media business, and Discovery answered the call. Although a smaller company, the more profitable Discovery bought the debt-ridden WarnerMedia, and the Discovery team largely took over the company. In order to cut losses within the company, much of HBO Max’s investments were cut, both in its library of existing shows and movies either being cancelled or removed from the service, and much of the future movies and shows in production were cancelled, even some that were nearly complete.
These cuts were more pronounced on the streaming side of the company, but the more lucrative side of linear television and theatrical also saw some changes. Scripted shows were all cancelled for TBS and TNT, including the weekly late-night show by Samantha Bee, in favor of sports and event programming like AEW. And consolidation across the company has occurred, including the announced merging of Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network Studios, spawning concern for fans of the network on Twitter.
Cartoon Network fans have a lot of reason to be concerned: HBO Max cancelled and abruptly removed several animated shows with large fanbases and seeing the state of linear being more focused on sports, news, and topical programming, it certainly wouldn’t shock anyone if Cartoon Network too saw cancellations. And with Cartoon Network’s more young-adult oriented programming, its shows have a wide appeal across tweens and young adults who won’t find their tastes easily replaced on other networks and streamers. Couple that with animation in general being less protected than other entertainment industries and more susceptible to cutbacks, and you have valid concern for fans.
Cartoon Network responded by denying the rumors of its demise (because what else can they say) and that it plans to produce more shows than ever in its 30-year history. It still calls into question the longevity of the brand, even if it has ties to what was thought of as a strong streaming service in HBO Max. The network still has a fanbase with viewership, although dropping due to the declining subscriptions to pay TV, whose shows go into HBO Max which isn’t profitable, but linear still needs the investment to keep cable operators happy, even though the streaming service, although losing money, is where the eyeballs are. It’s a mess.
And that’s the concern across the linear industry. Streaming services are not yet profitable, and while linear television revenues are dropping, it’s still a source of a great amount of money, even if the eyeballs appear less and less every quarter. Consumers just want a cheaper, easier way to consume content, and with cable requiring a lot of cash per month through its own cable box or app, it just doesn’t resonate with what is slowly becoming the majority of people. While Pluto TV has proven that the linear format isn’t dead, the linear pay TV industry has to make some big changes before their brands become completely irrelevant.