Jay Leno is Half Right About Today’s ‘Late Night’ Politics

Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno made some political news earlier this week in an appearance on NBC’s Today. When asked if he missed his television hosting duties, Leno answered with an unequivocal no.

“It’s different,” he added, referring to our uncivil political landscape. “I don’t miss it. You know, everything now is, if people don’t like your politics they – everyone has to know your politics.”

Leno explained that it’s “tough” to be an effective late-night comedy host when people see you as “one-sided.” He pointed out that when he was at the helm, he tried to follow Johnny Carson’s lead with bi-partisan humor, where viewers weren’t quite sure where he stood politically — and perhaps more importantly, they didn’t care.

“Because, you know, the theory when we did the show was: you just watch the news, we’ll make fun of the news, and get your mind off the news, ” said Leno. “Well, now people just want to be on the news all the time. You just have one subject that’s the same topic every night, which makes it – makes it very hard. I mean, all the comics, Jimmy and Colbert and everybody else, it’s tough when that’s the only topic out there.”

While some would argue that Leno wasn’t quite as down the center during his Tonight Show tenure as he now portrays himself, there’s no doubt that he was far less political than his primary competition, David Letterman, who Leno decimated in the ratings for many years. And when Jimmy Fallon replaced Leno in 2014, the former Saturday Night Live cast member’s avoidance of political partisanship proved successful as well. His lighthearted, optimistic approach to comedy handily beat both ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and CBS’s Stephen Colbert in the ratings.

But it didn’t last.

The era of Trump ushered in a much deeper and often mean-spirited focus on politics. And shortly after the presidential inauguration in 2017, Stephen Colbert (a committed liberal and fierce vocal critic of the president) jumped ahead in the ratings (where he has dominated ever since). Kimmel turned fiercely political as well, sometimes using his late-night platform to issue sanctimonious denunciations of Trump, Republicans, and conservatives. And Fallon, who has admitted in the past to not even caring all that much about politics, has been sharpening his political blows to keep up.

This would indicate that Leno was right when he suggested that late night hosts are just catering to the times — aka giving the audience what it wants. And in this respect, what those shows are doing isn’t all that different than what the cable news networks have done for some time: tailor their products to appeal to an increasingly tribal grievance culture.

While there are plenty of people — including political pundits — who agree with Leno, I do think there’s an additional factor at play here.

Yes, today’s politics are highly divisive, and a lot of national news stories reflect that. Our eternally combative, truth-challenged, reality-show president (backed by an intensely loyal political following) clashes every day with his often unhinged and ideological political opponents — opponents that include a reflexively hostile mainstream media that seem incapable of covering him fairly or objectively.

But it seems to me that there is still a huge demand, especially in such polarizing times, for broadcast entertainment that isn’t so ridiculously dependent on politics. I mean, it’s not like prime-time network shows, cable entertainment shows, and streaming entertainment shows (like the ones we enjoy on Netflix and Amazon Prime) are suffering from not being overtly political.

Why must the late-night stuff be different?

I have a theory that the shift to a more politically partisan late-night culture is more an issue of ease than it is a programming adjustment to meet the evolving demand of consumers.

Could it be that the current kings of late night — wait for it — just aren’t that funny? Could it be that the political theatrics and our cultural divide serve as a metaphorical crutch for the comedic shortcomings of these hosts and their writers?

Don’t get me wrong. Colbert displayed a knack for political comedy in his years on Comedy Central, and he enjoyed a good amount of success from it. Kimmel has a certain wit about him, and — though I’ve personally never been a fan — people seem to think that Fallon is good at sketch comedy. That’s all fine and good, but this current crew sorely lacks the natural comedic talent that their predecessors had an abundance of.

Sorry, but it’s true.

Additionally, Carson had folksy charm that ingratiated himself to viewers on a personal level. Letterman (before he turned bitter) was extraordinarily creative and unconventional. Leno, though he wasn’t as talented as Carson and Letterman, had an authentic good-naturedness about him that appealed to a wide spectrum of viewers.

But again, more importantly, they were funnier and more welcoming than the people we see now. They didn’t need an outrageous political environment in order to draw viewers.

So while I think Leno is right in that today’s late-night scene is a reflection of a politically and culturally divided nation, he’s being far too charitable to today’s hosts and writers who’ve taken advantage of the situation. Leno, Carson, and Letterman brought people together though comedy, and they did it by being funny and inviting. Unlike today’s crew that channels societal angst, they diffused it. And that type of thing takes real talent.

Relying on partisan politics for ratings isn’t “tough,” as Leno suggested. It’s actually quite easy. Much easier than comedy, in fact. And that’s why those who are ill-equipped to produce broad, quality humor are under so much pressure to go the political route. It’s the path of least resistance in times like these.

America still has a collective sense of humor. The late-night players just don’t have what it takes to appeal to it.

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MSNBC Beats Fox News in Overall Viewers; Panic Time?

Last week, MSNBC took first place in the cable-news ratings war for the first time since the network debuted 21 years ago. They not only defeated Fox News in the key 25-54 demographic, but also in total viewers. In fact, FNC didn’t even come in second in prime-time. They finished third behind CNN — something that hadn’t happened since the year 2000.

The primary reason for the newfound success of NBC News’s decidedly progressive cable-news branch was described by Bernie Goldberg in a recent piece. Bashing President Trump over his often embarrassing and controversial antics is good for business.

Trump’s crassness and almost daily displays of dishonesty throughout the election convinced much of the American public that he simply can’t be trusted, and that it is especially important to hold him accountable, now that he is our president. Thus, troublesome allegations against him (even baseless ones) are immediately entertained and exploited. And there is no one more enthusiastic (and often less responsible) about doing it than far-left members of the mainstream media.

Fox News has obviously gone a different route, largely establishing itself as a pro-Trump outfit (at least on its editorial shows). The movement in that direction began about two years ago, when several of Trump’s personal friends (including Sean Hannity, Eric Bolling, and Laura Ingraham) used their FNC platforms to effectively promote his candidacy. When the novelty and outlandishness of the Trump campaign turned into television gold, and Fox’s obsessive (and increasingly positive) coverage of it acted as a ratings sugar-rush for the network, more on-air personalities fell in line.

Over time, a re-branding effort of sorts softened the network’s emphasis on conservatism. Instead, Trump-normalization became the central theme. Even Bill “No Spin” O’Reilly was firmly on board, carrying water for his buddy, Trump, to the point of absurdity.

For a while, Fox’s new direction proved to be quite profitable. In fact, 2016 was the network’s most-watched year to date. Even the first quarter of 2017 still had the Fox on top (though steadily losing ground). But with Trump (now as president) continuing to feed his critics ammunition to pummel him with, the network’s tone evolved again. The shift was noticeable even before Fox unexpectedly dropped O’Reilly, a longtime ratings juggernaut.

Rather than pro-Trump commentators devoting all of their time to defending the indefensible (an exhaustive practice with this president), political deflection became the new theme. Taking a page out of Trump’s campaign playbook, hosts began using the “counter-punch” strategy as the basis for their analysis. Tucker Carlson (who took over O’Reilly’s time-slot) has led the charge, focusing his nightly efforts almost exclusively on examples of liberals acting horribly or hypocritically. This includes a nightly segment where he mercilessly wails away on a liberal guest who doesn’t seem to understand why they were asked onto the show in the first place.

Sean Hannity has taken things a few steps further, expanding his show beyond Trump sycophantism, and into the realm of hair-on-fire conspiracy theories. In fact, for the past several weeks, Hannity has been trying to convince his audience that the unsolved murder of DNC staffer, Seth Rich, was carried out by Democrats trying to silence Rich from leaking information to Wikileaks. This theory was debunked soon after it began, but Hannity has continued on with it, much to the dismay of Rich’s family who has been pleading with him to stop politicizing their deep loss.

On The Five, any criticism of something Trump did is immediately answered by one or two of the hosts with an example of a liberal doing something similar in the past. The shtick has gotten quite stale.

With the notable exceptions of Special Report and Fox News Sunday (which remain two of the best news programs on television), Fox News shows have become more about going after Trump’s detractors than they have about analyzing the Trump presidency and world events. This may be perfectly fine with our president’s base, and also with a good chunk of conservatives, but it doesn’t draw in (or enlighten) a broader audience.

That’s not to say that the Left’s hypocrisy and clear media biases aren’t legitimate issues worth exploring and exposing. They are indeed. But they shouldn’t be the primary focus of a serious news network. If you’re negligent in actually covering the news, people are going to go looking for it in other places (even if they’re not entirely happy with the alternative product).

Can Fox News recover? Absolutely. In fact, the network’s ratings are still historically quite strong. And being that they lost three of their top stars over the past several months (Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Greta Van Susteren), one would think they’d be in much worse shape. But executives at the network can’t ignore the rising success of their competitors. Fox News is losing the appeal it once had with viewers who aren’t deeply partisan, and they’re losing that appeal quickly.

The tribal sugar-rush has about run out. It’s time to start thinking about a long-term plan for renewing interest and trust among viewers whose appetite for red meat isn’t their primary motivation for turning on the news.

Why Megyn Kelly and Newt Gingrich Will Help Cable News Ratings

kellyFox News recently announced that America Live host, Megyn Kelly, will be getting her own prime-time show beginning this Fall. For fans like myself, this was great news. I’ve long recognized Kelly as a standout performer on the network, and there’s something almost prideful in watching someone like her rise up through the ranks of their profession through a lot of hard work, real talent, and proven integrity. She’ll be a real asset in her new position.

Though Fox News still dominates the cable news ratings, the truth is that their prime-time lineup (including The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity) isn’t pulling quite as strong of numbers as it once did. Megyn Kelly’s afternoon show, however, has added to its audience over time, and has led the way in increased daytime viewership for the network. Clearly, this didn’t go unnoticed by Fox executives.

Promoting Kelly to prime-time was smart. What she brings to the table is the capacity to bring in new viewers who typically wouldn’t tune into the network during that time because they’re turned off by the often overbearing style of Bill O’Reilly and the overt partisanship of Sean Hannity. Kelly obviously won’t be replacing either of those personalities (my guess is that Greta Van Susteren will be the one taking the hit), but she will surely add some freshness and variety to the line-up.

Kelly has set herself aside as someone who is very much in touch with the concerns of her viewers. She listens to them, and does an excellent job of pinning down guests with the questions people want answers to. It’s clear in her presentation that she researches stories exhaustively, and unlike many in the business, she’s more concerned with getting the story right than being right. Sadly, that’s a real rarity today.

How will that style translate to a time-slot in which much of the opinionated analysis on all cable news networks is loud, animated, and ideologically-driven? I actually think she’ll carve out her own niche quite well.

Likeability and charm aside, Kelly has a genuineness and strong moral presence about her that lets her make a real connection with people. It’s not all that different, really, than how people once viewed Oprah Winfrey. That’s a good thing, and that factor should draw in a prime-time audience more diverse than the one Fox News typically attracts.

Fox isn’t the only news network mixing up their prime-time programming. CNN recently announced that they’ll be resurrecting Crossfire, their once very popular program that pitted opposing sides of the political spectrum against each other, on equal footing, in sharp debate.

The return of this format to prime-time isn’t all that exciting in itself. After all, CNN tried it a couple of years ago with Parker Spitzer, which was a colossal flop. What might make this attempt different, however, is that former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, will be representing the conservative side of the table.

One of the reasons news networks other than Fox have long struggled to attract conservative-thinking viewers is because they don’t feature individuals, in important roles, that conservatives respect. This is primarily due to the liberal bubble of like-mindedness that surrounds the media industry. The industry largely doesn’t understand the conservative viewpoint. They’re hostile to it, and they don’t take it serious enough or lend it enough credibility to accurately represent it.

The acquisition of Gingrich, however, shows that CNN may finally be learning something from their past mistakes. Gingrich is one the most competent and compelling voices for conservatism that we have in this country today. Mitt Romney certainly figured this out, much to his dismay, back during the 2012 primaries.

While most of the media presents the conservative argument as a lone, defensive voice against a merciless onslaught of leftist, bumper-sticker cliches, that’s not what CNN will be getting with Gingrich. Gingrich has become well known as a man who outright rejects the premises and sensibilities of the liberal media culture, and has a knack for taking ownership of the narratives onFrom a Dead Sleep - by John A. Daly big issues.

By making Gingrich one of Crossfire’s hosts (and not merely a guest), I think CNN may finally be giving people like me a reason to tune into their network.

You know, with MSNBC recently falling back into last place among the cable news networks, one would think that they would be announcing big changes to their programming as well. They haven’t, and I don’t expect them to. MSNBC has demonstrated a complete inability to address ratings-slumps and credibility-problems with anything other than a revolving door of snarky, left-wing-media activists dedicated to promoting and defending the Obama administration.

There was a time, after Comcast came in, when I was hopeful that the network might actually mend its ways. That’s clearly not going to happen… And how ironic is it that an entity that has invested itself so deeply in the platitude of “change” absolutely refuses to do so itself?

Their continued losses will hopefully be the other networks’ gains.