Viral videos and late night success

Recently, YouTube’s most popular content creator — PewDiePie, a Swedish user/channel known initially for live streams of video games —threatened to delete his account in protest of YouTube’s partnership policy. PewDiePie risked losing 50 million subscriptions — and his reported million-dollar paycheque — to get YouTube to address apparent difficulties with its video distribution model. While PewDiePie’s fight with YouTube continues, his battle helps to illuminate a major change in entertainment: the role of online content and its link to real-world success.

This shift is demonstrated even more glaringly by ongoing rumours that the Late Late Show’s James Corden could replace Stephen Colbert as host of the Late Show. Despite his following from his previous characters on The Daily Show and his own Colbert Report, Colbert has been unable to pull CBS’s late night talk show into the first-place ratings position. Practically since he took the reigns of the show, Colbert has dealt with criticisms that his edgy Comedy Network persona had not transferred well to an earlier, less character-driven timeslot.

Enter James Corden, the British expat most known for his Carpool Karaoke videos where he belts out popular classics accompanied by the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Elton John. In a short timespan, Corden has evolved from an entertainment unknown into one of the most-watched late-night hosts — on YouTube, that is.

When looking at traditional television ratings, Corden sits at the bottom of the pack, behind Late Night with Seth Meyers — his only competition during his time slot. Similarly, Colbert lags behind his 11:30pm competitors. While he’s slightly ahead of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, he’s well behind Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. Why then would executives at NBC want to switch Colbert for the, apparently, similarly poorly performing Corden? The answer comes from online media.

On their YouTube Channels, Colbert’s struggle is more pronounced. Of the six names in traditional, mainstream late night (Conan, Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers and Corden), Colbert has the second fewest YouTube subscribers. The subscriber breakdown is as follows (at the time of writing):

  • The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC): 12,637,000 subscribers
  • Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC): 8,770,000 subscribers
  • The Late Late Show with James Corden (CBS): 8,478,000 subscribers
  • Conan (TBS): 4,584,851 subscribers
  • The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: 1,902,000 subscribers
  • Late Night with Seth Meyers: 845,000 subscribers

These numbers only show part of the story, however. Colbert and Corden’s shows have yet to hit their two-year mark. Fallon and Meyers have had more than a year on air than their CBS competitors, while Kimmel has been at the helm of ABC’s foray into late night since 2003. With these brief timetables in mind, Corden’s rise is understandably impressive.

Anyone who is a fan of late night talk shows will notice a similarity among the top-ranked hosts’ channels: viral videos. Jimmy Fallon has worked to pull Jay Leno’s traditional Tonight Show closer towards a variety show format, bringing in numerous star-studded segments that are both entertaining and can exist in isolation from the nightly show itself. Kimmel’s ‘Celebrities reading mean tweets’ and man-on-the-street segments are frequently shared on social media. Corden’s previously mentioned Carpool Karaoke is a major hit online along with his other viral segments. And Conan’s channel is brimming with clips of the host doing everything from touring a Cuban rum distillery to buying medicinal marijuana with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.

Colbert and Meyers, on the other hand, are not known for pre-taped, celebrity-heavy, or man-on-the-street segments. These bottom-tier shows hew much closer to traditional talk show structures with a lengthy monologue, a brief segment performed from behind a desk leading into celebrity interviews and ending with a musical guest. While the other hosts have not abandoned this structure, they have adapted it to the new reality of online entertainment.

When, increasingly, people are cutting their cable and replacing it with online streaming services like Netflix, Crave, Hulu, and YouTube, television shows are confronted with the reality that hour-long investments at set times are no longer the norm for viewers. Media consumers want short clips that can be viewed on their smartphones at their leisure. Colbert and Meyers, while talented entertainers, are producing content stuck in the traditional mold. Fallon and Corden are pulling ahead as late night’s top talent thanks to their ability to adapt to the times and create content that is not only enjoyable to their fans, but easily accessible, as well.

The way we enjoy television is changing. Even the phrase ‘television’ seems outdated in this context, since so little of the entertainment programming we consume is actually on television. If the major broadcast networks are able to ensure their programming is accessible and engaging across formats, then late night institutions like the Late Show and Tonight Show could survive long into the future. If they are unable to make this change, the face of our entertainment will soon more closely resemble PewDiePie than Stephen Colbert.