The Old Watch Late-Night Shows; the Young Watch DVRs

Letterman warms up his NBC studio audience prior to the taping of a show in New York in 1982 Photograph by George Rose/Getty Images

A week shy of 67, David Letterman says he’s ready to retire next year. Most of his audience of aging boomers is just about ready to do the same in their own careers.

Much like golf and professional baseball, the traditional late-night talk show has an old-people problem. The audience watching Late Show with David Letterman on CBS is, by and large, the same cohort who joined the host in 1982 when his show was new, with a glaring dearth of youngsters in the mix. The average age of a Letterman viewer jumped to 58.2 in the past year, up from 48.5 a decade ago, according to data from Horizon Media. That compares with 54.3 for Jimmy Kimmel Live! and 57.1 for Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, which saw its viewer age decline slightly over the past year since it was announced that the older Jay Leno would be departing from behind the desk.

This chart tells the story of Late Show’s graying viewership under Letterman. The trend line doesn’t budge from its ever-aging trajectory:

While Fallon performs well relative to the competition (and to his predecessor), the late-night TV slot is rapidly becoming a time when younger viewers pursued by advertisers—ages 18 to 49—catch up on recorded shows. Even The Tonight Show’s current position could be toppled by the continued rise of binge viewing, says Brad Adgate, senior vice president in charge of research at Horizon. “The biggest threat [to CBS] is not cable. It’s not the Conans or Stewarts and Colberts, or even Adult Swim,” he says. “It’s DVR playback.”

The time-shifting population taken as a whole is already larger than the audience of two of the three traditional late-night shows. During the hour between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. each night, about 4 million households are watching recorded shows, according to Horizon data, compared with about 2.9 million tuning in for Letterman and 2.7 million for Kimmel’s ABC show. Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim commanded 1.2 million people during that hour. Only Fallon’s Tonight Show, at 4.3 million viewers, has a bigger audience than the DVR.

While the inescapable media parlor game for today is to guess whom CBS will tap to helm Late Show next, Adgate believes it’s possible the network could decide that an animated comedy or some other less expensive show may lure younger viewers. “Put on a Family Guy or Robot Chicken where you counter-program the two Jimmys, and if the thing works with 18- to 34-year-olds, then you’ve hit a gold mine.”

Those two Jimmys—Fallon and Kimmel—also rely heavily on skits that make their way to social media and YouTube, the kind of material Letterman’s show has in short supply. Clips of Fallon crooning a collection of retro hits with pop star Justin Timberlake or Kimmel staging a viral prank keep both programs in the minds of younger viewers while providing the networks a way to monetize product from the nightly shows. A younger Letterman was doing similarly inventive bits—from Stupid Pet Tricks to his Human Sponge Suit—that got people talking, long before YouTube and social media commandeered the national water cooler conversation.

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