The television landscape has completely transformed since Johnny Carson gave his farewell on NBC's Tonight Show in 1992. But even in the age of streaming video and DVRs, late-night TV is getting more attention than it has seen in years.
Viewers are eagerly awaiting next month's debut of Stephen Colbert on CBS's The Late Show and Trevor Noah taking the helm of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. The transitions are expected to be major pop culture moments.
Late-night talk shows are seeing double-digit percentage gains in advertising revenue in what has otherwise been a stagnant TV ad market in recent years. And a new generation of hosts are using the Internet to reel in younger viewers.
"Late night is where the action is right now," said Billie Gold, vice president and director of programming research for ad agency Dentsu. "There are very few new shows in prime time that are creating buzz among advertisers. Late night is being reinvigorated."
NBC has just signed host Jimmy Fallon to a contract extension that keeps him on Tonight through 2021.
Fallon, who took over for longtime Tonight Show host Jay Leno in February 2014, is not only the late-night leader but is scoring better ratings than his predecessor. He has averaged 1.4 million viewers this season in the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers prefer. According to NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, the Tonight franchise is "exceedingly profitable" again after having become a break-even operation for the network not so long ago.
The reward for a smooth host handoff can be handsome. The total 2014 ad spending on the broadcast network late-night talk shows alone was $597.5 million, according to Kantar Media. That's 14 percent over 2013's total, and Fallon's show accounted for a significant portion of that increase.
The topical comedy on the shows — a major part of the national conversation about society, celebrity and politics — is keeping their status as appointment programs when more viewers are using DVRs or streaming services to watch shows on their own schedule. Eighty-one percent of Tonight viewers watch the show live compared with 62 percent for NBC's prime-time series, according to Nielsen. The figure is 92 percent for ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live.
It's not that late-night TV is immune to the increase in viewer choices and technological trends that have sliced and diced the mass audience that Leno and David Letterman battled over in the 1990s. Ratings for all of the late programs have declined in the current TV season. But more people are watching as digital video clips from the shows draw hundreds of millions of online views.
The potential for turning those online views into ad dollars is one reason CBS executives are enthused about Colbert's arrival Sept. 8.
CBS has already gotten a sense of late night's digital potential with its new Late, Late Show host, James Corden. The British actor was a virtual unknown in the United States when he took over the 12:35 a.m. time slot from Craig Ferguson. But his segments, such as Carpool Karaoke, in which he sings with star performers inside a moving SUV, have exploded online. Corden's musical ride-along with Justin Bieber has drawn more than 32 million views on YouTube since it went up May 20.
The expectation is that Colbert, who has already teased his CBS arrival with a series of viral videos, will be a big attraction online.
"We have two new hosts in late night who are forward-thinking and progressive, not only in their view of the world but in terms of embracing digital content as a form of communication with their viewers — and we're able to monetize it," CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said.
Dentsu's Gold believes the 2016 race for the White House, already great comedy material thanks to reality show star and real estate mogul Donald Trump, plays into Colbert's strength as a political satirist demonstrated on The Colbert Report.