Late-Night Network Shows Still a White Men’s Club

Lynn Elber, AP, April 6, 2013

The role of female talk show hosts in late-night TV broadcast network history, all 50-plus years of it, can be summed up in two words: Joan Rivers. It takes just another two—Arsenio Hall—to do the same for minorities.

There’s no indication that’s going to change in the latest round of musical chairs involving “Tonight” and “Late Night.” All the NBC, ABC and CBS showcase jobs at 11:30 p.m. Eastern and later appear likely to remain securely in white men’s hands.

Jay Leno is handing off to Jimmy Fallon, with speculation tagging Seth Meyers as his likely successor. Meanwhile, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and Carson Daly are sitting pretty, without the faintest drumbeat of a pair of advancing high heels to signal a threat.

There have been alternatives bandied about—Chelsea Handler, black comedian-writer Aisha Tyler—but no hints they or others are getting traction.

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NBC did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. But if belles du jour Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can excel at TV sitcoms and movies and teach Ricky Gervais a thing or two (or three) about hosting the Golden Globes, could they be queens of the night with their own talk shows? Or maybe a Hispanic or Asian-American man could have a turn. {snip}

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Rivers, who became host of Fox’s “The Late Show” in 1986 after filling in as the sole regular guest host on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight,” calls the lack of female hosts “beyond” frustrating.

Blame the broadcast industry’s resistance toward change and the risk of failure, she said: “Everybody is running so scared, and has always run scared.”

And executives can find reasons, or excuses, for keeping the status quo.

“They had surveys at NBC, and the surveys were that women would rather watch a man at night, which is what they’re always throwing up in your face,” Rivers said.

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It’s true that women make up a majority of the audience for every network late-night show. ABC’s Kimmel, for instance, is averaging 1.4 million female viewers and 770,000 male viewers this season, while Leno is watched by 1.9 million women and 1.5 million men, according to Nielsen Co. ratings.

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The networks have other reasons to reconsider their white-guys-only strategy, according to an analysis of Nielsen data: They are losing out on minority viewers, Hispanics in particular.

Of the total 3.44 million viewers averaged by “Tonight” for the season through March 24, there were 188,000 Hispanics. That’s about 5 percent of the total audience, compared to the nearly 17 percent Latino slice of the U.S. population.

The other late-night shows show similar degrees of disconnect with Hispanics, although some can boast healthy black viewership.

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TBS turned to an established comic in 2010 when it launched “The George Lopez Show.” But when Lopez was bumped back an hour to midnight to make way for O’Brien’s post-“Tonight” effort, ratings fell and Lopez got a pink slip. He had averaged 910,000 viewers at 11 p.m. Eastern; so far this season, O’Brien is averaging just under 600,000—and just earned a renewal through 2015.

Lopez is canceled, Wanda Sykes loses her low-rated Saturday night Fox show, and it gives networks an out, said UCLA’s Hunt: “They’ll point to the example of the cautionary tale as to why diversity is not a good thing for the bottom line.”

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