Seth Meyers is an affable, funny guy. But why in 2013 are we still looking for any diversity in late night?
By Mary Elizabeth Williams
No one would suggest that it’s a tragedy—or a white male conspiracy—that George Lopez only lasted two years, or that Kathy Griffin’s show on Bravo failed to find its footing. And it’s not just the late-night talk shows that are suffering from a lack of imagination in the host chair—have you seen the news lately? And behind all that similarity in front of the cameras, guess what you’ll find in the writing room? More white dudes.
It’s hard to change things. It’s getting really depressing for those of us who just love good television to keep hopefully panting at the feet of the networks, year after year after year, begging, “Come on, guys. Have you seen Julie Klausner? Tina Fey could use a new job. Do you know about Aziz Ansari? Are you aware of how fantastic Donald Glover is?” I can’t shake the sense that any serious suggestion of an evenly vaguely outside the box host choice for “Late Night” would have been greeted with the same confused, blank faces I got when, during a recent party conversation with a pair of men about casting for “Wonder Woman,” I mentioned Zoe Saldana as my dream pick.
Twenty years ago, NBC took a chance on a dorky, ginger-haired former “Simpsons” writer—hardly an affirmative action pick—and that turned out pretty OK for awhile. Does a host have to be someone with an all but guaranteed if unremarkable built-in audience anyway? Today, as the “Late Night” network NBC finds itself in the ratings crapper, the pressure to simply not fail is tremendous. But in an environment like that, not rocking the boat, even gently, seems a path to epic audience indifference. Better to maintain the status quo, no matter how unchallenging and safe it may be—which is exactly how we wind up with Carson Friggin’ Daly as one of the most enduring figures on television.
Why the white hosts?
As the article said, Conan O'Brien was an untested gamble, so why not a gamble on a woman or minority?
RE: The Conan thing, I think the pressure to deliver is a lot higher now than it was when he got the job back then. I don't think the network is willing to take a chance on something and give it two or three seasons to mature. Just look what happened to Conan on the Tonight Show. He didn't even get a full season there.
Seth Meyers is 39, and his comedic approach on SNL isn't exactly young and hip. And Conan skewed a lot younger than Leno, so I'm not sure I buy the "young viewers" thing.
I think the article's point is that the networks tried O'Brien, Kimmel, Fallon, even Daly in late-late-night slots first. How much financial risk is there at 12:30 or 1:30?
So we're not saying put someone in The Tonight Show now. Rather, start grooming them for the big show like you do the white guys.
Well I thing you're seeing some of that "grooming" now, but we probably won't see the results for five or 10 more years. People like Ansari mentioned above, and we're likely to see a lot more Hispanic actors on t.v. in the near future.
And I never said that I thought Meyers was going to make it. I don't think he was a particularly good "white guy" choice either.
You have to try them like the networks did with O'Brien, Kimmel, Fallon, even Daly before you can be sure. If you ever intend to go with someone other than a white guy, that is.
It's no good if we have to wait five years for the first appointment to a grooming slot that will take another five years to bear fruit. People like Bill Cosby, Cher, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett, and Tony Orlando hosted variety shows decades ago, so what are we waiting for?
Discussion becomes debate
For starters, I'd ask the networks to explain why late-night viewers are mostly white males. These shows are basically talk, which--going by the stereotype--should appeal more to female viewers. If the white-male hosts aren't responsible for the white-male audiences, tell me what is.
Then I'd ask where the women and minority viewers have gone. Is someone seriously arguing that roughly two-thirds of Americans simply turn off the TV and go to bed, while the other third stays up and watches late-night shows? Show me the evidence for that and then we'll discuss it.
Or are two-thirds of Americans watching something other than white-male late-night TV? If that's the case, the networks are leaving money on the table. Whatever shows appeal to women and minorities, put those shows on late-night TV.
For example, do women prefer to watch The View? Then yank Kimmel or Fallon and put The View on at 12:30 instead. Give the majority--women and minorities combined--whatever they want.
It's idiocy to cater to one-third of the population while ignoring two-thirds. It's bad business. Good business is catering to every demographic group with money to spend.
Does that answer your hypothetical question?
By the way, I checked an article on late-night demographics. It didn't tell me much, but I found one interesting tidbit. The shows all want the 18-49 demographic, but they don't seem to be getting it.
Something like a third of Leno's viewers are 18-49. Kimmel may be leading percentage-wise with half his viewers in that range. Presumably the other half are in the uncoveted 50-80 demographic.
By a strange coincidence, that's how the general population breaks down too. Roughly half of adult Americans are 18-49 and half are 50 and up. So Kimmel's big achievement is that his demographic mirrors the country as a whole, age-wise. He's got old viewers and young viewers...wow!
So I'm not seeing a reason for sticking with the tried-and-true. If the 18-49 demographic is so important--another questionable belief--it argues against relying on the same old type of host.
"Reasoning is flawed"? Not
That's beside the point because that's falling back on the notion that networks have an obligation to cater to everyone. If you're saying unequivocally that they do, then is that true even if it jeopardizes their market position and profits, and at what point are they allowed to consider those things?
"Then I'd ask where the women and minority viewers have gone."
That's a valid question. IS anyone actually asking that? I don't have an answer.
"Or are two-thirds of Americans watching something other than white-male late-night TV? If that's the case, the networks are leaving money on the table. Whatever shows appeal to women and minorities, put THOSE shows on late-night TV....It's idiocy to cater to one-third of the population while ignoring two-thirds. It's bad business. Good business is catering to every demographic group with money to spend."
There your reasoning is flawed. It's unrealistic to thing that one product is going to appeal to women AND all minorities of every different origin. It's attempting to paint a, forgive the pun, black and white picture of a market that's very much more complicated. I'm not even sure it's possible to have one show that caters to every demographic group. If it were, I'd guess they'd be doing that already.
You're also ignoring the fact that, like it or not, women and minorities DON'T have as much money to spend. That's not a good thing, but it's not the networks' fault either.
So I guess that doesn't exactly answer the question, which was whether the networks have a social obligation to take a financial risk on minority-centered programming. If your answer was that they should want to because there's actually more money to be made, then show me the evidence for THAT and we'll discuss it.
No, my reasoning isn't flawed. If you can't find a show that caters to everyone, which is certainly possible, you'd logically cater to the biggest demographic group. That might be all women, including minority women; all men, including minority men; or all whites, including white women. It certainly isn't white men.
You're ignoring the fact that women make most of the spending decisions even if men earn more money. And that poor people probably watch more TV, because it's a cheap form of entertainment, and spend more of their disposable income, because it isn't invested. It's ridiculous to think well-heeled white men are the main people watching late-night TV or any TV.
Really, my points are right on and your objections are all off. Next?
Women and minorities watch more
Needless to say, the evidence supports my position. Here's a sample of it:
Blog: Women watch more TV than men
Women ages 2 and up watch more than 166 hours of television each month on average.
That’s nearly 16 hours of more TV watching per month among these women compared to the viewing habits of men of similar ages.
Look Who Controls the Pursestrings
I think we've established that your hypothetical has little or no basis in reality. But since a hypothetical doesn't have to be plausible, I'll try again to answer your question.
Besides the compelling business argument, I'd say there's also a compelling "social justice" argument. We the people license the airwaves for the broadcasters' use. We arguably have a right to put conditions on that use. That means whatever we think is important: news shows for informing the public, educational shows for children, or programming that caters to diverse populations even if it isn't as profitable.
If broadcasters don't like it, they can go buy air-time on some low-access airwaves. And we'll give the high-access airwaves to someone else. Because again, the airwaves are a limited public resource, not some private free-market good that's none of our business.
"You're ignoring the fact that women make most of the spending decisions even if men earn more money. And that poor people probably watch more TV, because it's a cheap form of entertainment, AND spend more of their disposable income, because it isn't invested. It's ridiculous to think well-heeled white men are the main people watching late-night TV or any TV."
You're ignoring the possibility that white women may actually be more drawn to a white male host than a female one. There's a lot of alternate possibilities that I'm guessing networks have explored with research and focus groups that we have not. Poor people may watch more t.v., but they have less money which means advertisers are less interested in them.
One thing you're also ignoring is that while a certain percentage of female or minority viewers will still watch a show with a white host, a (I'm guessing here) much smaller percentage of white males will watch a show with a female or minority host.
So I see no evidence here that putting a female or minority host on late-night t.v. would necessarily result in more revenue for advertisers no matter what the current audience breakdown is.
"Neither one of us has any hard science to prove that advertisers SHOULDN'T be primarily courting white males."
I have the numbers showing that women and minorities watch more TV. All you have is speculation that the numbers are wrong or meaningless or something. Sorry, but data trumps no data every time.
"You're ignoring the possibility that white women may actually be more drawn to a white male host than a female one."
Are minorities also drawn to white males? Uh-huh, sure they are.
Actually, we have volumes of evidence on what kinds of hosts women are drawn to. The names of these hosts include Oprah, Ellen, Rosie, Wendy, Ricki, and the casts of The View and The Talk. The evidence strongly suggests that women prefer female hosts.
Will white men watch minorities? See the sports and music industries for solid evidence that they will. Will they watch women? I'm not sure, but that's what experimentation is for. Put on diverse hosts at 12:20 or 1:30 and see how they fare. I'm not hearing any excuse for whitewashing the wee hours when the risk of losing money is minuscule.
In short, your claims are mere speculation. I'm not ignoring this speculation so much as treating it as irrelevant. Since it has no basis in fact, there's no reason to discuss it seriously.
And let's note how you've switched from male audiences having more buying power to female audiences preferring the same thing as male audiences. In other words, you conceded that I was right about my previous points without saying so. Well, I'll say it for you: I was right.
To reiterate, your "white men dominate late-night audiences" scenario is hypothetical. In reality, there's no evidence that late-night viewers skew white or male.
But let's go back to your hypothetical once more. Let's say the audience for late-night shows is all white males, that white males make up a third of the population, and that every other demographic group is smaller. In that case, should the networks cater exclusively to white males?
The answer is still no. There are three major networks with late-night shows. In this hypothetical scenario, they're each competing for the same third of the total audience. Unless they perform exceptionally, they can hope only to split that audience and garner one-ninth (11%) each.
How is ignoring 67% of the audience and settling for 11% a sound business decision? The smart business move would be to let the other networks compete for a third of the audience and target the other two-thirds. Who cares about white-male income have when you have an audience six times larger (1/9 vs. 6/9) than your competitors? I'll take an exclusive hold on women and minorities over half the white-male market any day of the century.
No, the smart business move is to counter-program. If a show like Jackass corners the white-male audience in a particular time-slot, the solution isn't to put on a Jackass clone. It's to counter-program with a woman's show. Networks do this frequently because it's the obvious response.
This used to happen in late-night too. The other networks ran repeats of movies or TV shows, or programs like Nightline, against Johnny Carson. So the question is why the networks aren't following this strategy anymore? What makes white-bread talk shows the only late-night programming choice these days?
For more on late-night TV, see Dennis Miller Slurs Sacheen Littlefeather and Indians on TV Talk Shows.