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Experts are Saying James Corden's Exit Signals the Death of All Late Night Talk Shows

CBS Photo Archive. Getty Images.

Up front I'll say that I never spent 30 seconds of my life parked in front of James Corden's talk show. Honestly, I've seen more of him in videos of people ripping apart the move CATS and his cloying, self-pitying response to Bill Maher's monologue about how we need to bring back fat shaming in order to combat the crisis of obesity:

… than I've seen of all his talk show episodes combined. Even the niche he carved out on YouTube, Car Karaoke - which is so prevalent the car I just bought comes standard-equipped with it, for real - is something I never once clicked on. 

None of which is meant to be taken as an indictment of James Corden. Yes, we've heard he's an insufferable, self-important dick:

But being a nice person in real life has never been a prerequisite for being entertaining on TV. As Adam Carolla has pointed out, the people most known for doing happy, carefree dances during the opening credits of their own shows are Bill Cosby and Ellen Degeneres. And they're both monsters. 

No, I never watched James Corden because of James Corden. But because his show is in a format that is either on life support or already dead. And I'm going with the latter, based on this article about Corden's departure: 

Source - [T]here’s one essential bit of information that nobody at CBS or on The Late Late Show is daring to say out loud (at least, not on the record). And that is, Corden’s show was wildly unprofitable and may well have been heading to the chopping block whether he stayed or not. 

Well-placed sources tell me The Late Late Show was costing $60 million to $65 million a year to produce but was netting less than $45 million.

“It was simply not sustainable,” says one executive. “CBS could not afford him anymore.”

Even if Corden had wanted to stay in his seat, there was bound to be a late-night reckoning. He would have faced a multimillion-dollar pay cut or painful staff reductions or both, according to two sources who worked with him closely. …

In the pre-cable, pre-internet era, [Johnny] Carson could draw 10 million viewers a night. As competition mounted, [David] Letterman averaged 3 million to 5 million. Now, all three 11:30 p.m. stars—Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel—reach 5 million, combined. That shrinkage has hurt the 12:30 a.m. shows, too. When Corden debuted, in 2015, he was averaging around 1.6 million viewers. Lately, he’s down to 700,000 to 800,000 a night and fewer than 200,000 viewers in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that advertisers (and publicists) most covet. …

Every publicist has a story about a client who guests on a late-night show and barely hears from anyone afterward. A question hovers in the air: “Was anyone watching?” Was it worth getting dressed and manicured and made up?

Another question: After Corden is gone, is there any reason for late-night TV to continue? Or has the culture, like Corden himself, moved on?

I imagine that anyone under the age of say, 30, would have no concept of how huge the late night genre once was. When I was a kid, Carson was the guy my older brothers would be listening to while I was forced to be in bed. But on Friday nights I got to stay up and watch him. His material mostly went over my head but still gave me lessons in how to deliver monologues and the premise/setup/punchline structure of a great joke. Plus he always brought on comics and made superstars out of some relative unknowns. Letterman hit his stride when I was in college, bringing a whole new, sarcastic, irreverent energy to the whole format. And his monthly sitdowns with Jay Leno were appointment viewing. When I was in my late 20s, my buddy's younger brother explained to me that Conan O'Brien was to guys his age was Letterman was to us. And I became a fan. 

But that was a long time ago. Now the whole late night comedy thing feels about 20 years past its Sell By date. To the point you wonder how it's even still in existence. Other than to occasionally produce a bit funny enough, or do an interview relevant enough, to crack the algorithm and land on YouTube the next day. I can't imagine anyone is still staying up until 12:30 or even 1:30 am on the East Coast to hear some fresh, new Trump jokes, or listen to someone set up a clip of the new superhero movie they're in, when you can find a billion others just like them on your phone before you get up and brush your teeth in the morning. Or in your car. Or your ear pods at the gym.

Those ratings numbers don't lie. Imagine losing $20 million a year to sell auto insurance and pharmaceuticals to just 200,000 people advertisers are actually interested in reaching? No one would ever come up with a business plan that looks remotely like that.

A while back I listened to a BBC podcast where Conan was explaining to people who don't understand American TV how the whole late night format began in the 1960s. Essentially the networks realized they could hold an audience past 11pm instead of going off the air. So they just put some celebrities on a set with some furniture in front of a backdrop of a city skyline, and had them talk about things and stuff. And it's barely changed since. In the current entertainment sphere, the whole format just feels like playing in today's NFL running the Wing-T, with no forward passes. 

But here's the most damning part of the article:

Some previous hosts are skeptical. Craig Kilborn was the inaugural host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, between 1996 and 1998, and then the second host of The Late Late Show. … “Let me be tactful and somewhat gentle because I know and admire the guys currently working in late-night,” Kilborn said, “but when I left late-night, it was an easy decision and an exhilarating one. And now it’s even a stronger feeling.” He said he felt, even back then, that late-night formats had become redundant, and the increasingly strident political commentaries on shows were rankling to him. “It seems late-night is becoming more and more obsolete,” Kilborn says. “I’ve talked about it with my comedy-writer friends, and we simply don’t watch late-night anymore. Haven’t watched them for years.”

As the data confirms, Kilborn (and I) are not alone. 

And the timing of this is key. Because there's about to be a writers' strike in the industry, which will very likely be fatal. The last time they had one, it forced Conan to fill air time with bits like this:

To me, he was the last of the truly great hosts, and he got out while the getting was good. By the time the strike ends, you might not see another late night talk show again. That is, if you haven't stopped already like most of us.