Say what you will about the quality of late-night network talk shows — but Kimmel, Fallon, Colbert, Meyers and Corden aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Nor are cable’s John Oliver and Conan O’Brien.
It’s a different story over on Netflix.
The streaming service just can’t seem to find the right fit, or programming strategy, for a hit talk show. It whiffed in its first attempt — Chelsea Handler’s “Chelsea,” which stuck around for two retooled seasons (2016-17) but generated little buzz — and now it’s canned “The Break with Michelle Wolf” and “The Joel McHale Show” both after very short one-season runs.
(“McHale” premiered in February and aired one episode a week for 13 weeks, then dropped six new episodes at once; “The Break” premiered in May, with a new episode airing each of its 10 weeks.)
Netflix doesn’t cancel too many of its 1,987 original series (that’s not a real number — it just seems that way), so it’s always surprising when the ax falls on one, let alone two, well-publicized shows — and on the same day, no less.
And since Netflix guards its TV ratings with Kremlin-era secrecy — save for Nielsen, which occasionally goes rogue and drops some viewership info — we can posit that Wolf and McHale’s shows (and Handler’s before them) generated scant viewership.
I asked Jay Leno, who hosted NBC’s “Tonight Show” for 22 years, why he thinks that talk shows haven’t worked on Netflix.
“I think people get into a rhythm,” he says. “There are certain conventions in television they just expect, and when you deviate from those it doesn’t work.”
Is streaming the wrong platform for this genre? Maybe. But it’s 2018. Netflix is a known entity. It’s snared many high-profile TV names (including David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes) in big-money deals. People who know about these shows will find them. And many late-night fans watch their favorites via delayed viewing (online, DVR, apps, etc.) — not much different than watching these shows on Netflix (which has an app).
Is it the “live” feel that’s missing? Not really: Handler, McHale and Wolf each taped in front of a live audience. So that one doesn’t fly.
Maybe part of the Netflix dilemma is not premiering new episodes each weeknight — such a big part of the late-night broadcast model. Some say the networks are “dinosaurs,” yet viewers are creatures of habit, locked into their favorites at 11:35 p.m. and 12:35 a.m. on CBS, ABC and NBC — or every Sunday night on HBO for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Conan O’Brien’s “Conan” (11 p.m. Monday through Thursday) will switch to a half-hour format next year on TBS — but it’s renewed through 2022.
“There’s familiarity with repetition that people get used to,” says Leno, “so when a show is on at all different times and hours, well …
“And I don’t really see a lot of advertising for these shows on Netflix,” he says. “I try to watch all the [Netflix] comedy specials and I have to hunt to find them. Who’s that guy? You rarely see an ad or a promo. They’re just hard to find. The good part is you’re not inundated with commercials.”
Maybe viewers are just resistant to change — but, if that was the case, we wouldn’t be talking about Netflix which, over a short five years, has carved out its own show-business niche. Like it or not, it’s a culture touchstone.
Netflix isn’t waving any white flags on the genre — it’s got talk shows hosted by Norm Macdonald (“Norm Macdonald Has a Show”) and Hasan Minhaj (“Patriot Act”) launching in September and October, respectively.
But if the trend continues, I wonder how much longer Netflix will throw money at comedians for talk shows that generate few laughs — and even fewer viewers.
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