The night shift: Late-night talk shows fared well in 2018

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Kenneth Andeel / TV Media
Busy Philipps hosts "Busy Tonight"

Busy Philipps hosts "Busy Tonight"

With 2019 looming on the horizon, it's time for retrospectives about 2018's year in television to start pouring in. One corner of the TV world that is always worth a look is the realm of late-night talk, that distinctly North American format that shot to popularity -- and eventual universality -- during the second half of the 20th century. Beginning with shows like NBC's "The Tonight Show" (launched in 1954), the late-night formula spread from network to network, evolving across many iterations and becoming a necessary staple for every major programming provider.

Cable networks stepped up their late-night game in 2018. During the summer, Samantha Bee ("Full Frontal with Samantha Bee") made headlines battling with the Trump administration over its controversial immigration policies, and the new show saw a modest rise in ratings for her trouble. In October, E! launched "Busy Tonight," a new take on the traditional talk show hosted by actress and social media sensation Busy Philipps ("Dawson's Creek"). Early reception to her show has been mixed, but Philipps came out of the gate with the blessing of other hosts, cutting a promo for "Busy Tonight" that featured late-night staples such as Stephen Colbert, Conan O'Brien, Seth Meyers, Andy Cohen and others.

Speaking of late-night staples, O'Brien is changing the formula of his show in an effort to accommodate young viewers who are routinely cutting cords and looking for more streamlined content. Earlier this year, O'Brien announced that his TBS show "Conan" will be condensed down to a half-hour format and will spurn some of the formal trappings associated with late-night TV.

O'Brien's goal is to trim the fat endemic to the late-night tradition in order to offer lean, incisive episodes instead of longer ones padded with filler. His plan involves downsizing to one guest per night and editing the show's best material into a half-hour daily episode, while offering additional daily material online for people interested in seeking it out. "Conan" has generally boasted the youngest average audience of the major late-night shows, so it makes absolute sense for him to make changes that will keep those young, media-savvy audiences connected to his show.

When the subject of late-night talk shows is raised, though, what most people think of is the old standard, pioneered by the likes of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson (both of "The Tonight Show"). The formula is familiar: monologue, guests, maybe a live performance. Many of the major networks' late-night talk shows have this blueprint in common, which makes them easy to compare and makes minor differences between hosting styles and subtle fluctuations in ratings a lot more meaningful.

If there was a 2018 winner in the late-night wars, it was probably Colbert of CBS's "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." Colbert took over for David Letterman when he retired in 2015, and he began his nightly ratings battle with Jimmy Fallon, who replaced Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show" in 2014. In the immediate aftermath of the host switches of 2014-15, Fallon managed to hang onto Leno's ratings lead, but in recent years, Colbert's distinct hosting and interviewing style has eroded that lead.

Conan O'Brien as seen in "Conan"

Conan O'Brien as seen in "Conan"

Colbert started to pull ahead in 2017, when his overall viewership numbers began to regularly outdo Fallon's on a nightly basis. At that point, Fallon still retained one notch in his belt that was arguably superior to total viewership. While "The Tonight Show" had fewer overall viewers, it retained a solid lead in the most coveted demographic: viewers aged 18 to 49. Colbert had greater overall numbers, but Fallon's slightly smaller audience consisted of a more desirable group.

In 2018, though, buoyed by coverage of the U.S. midterm elections, Colbert finally managed to overtake Fallon within that coveted demo. Of course, the victory wasn't complete or permanent -- after the excitement of election week, Fallon's show retook the lead it had previously clung to -- but now "The Late Show" has proven it can get over the hump and will be looking to do so on a regular basis.

It's worth noting that overall viewership numbers for both "The Late Show" and "The Tonight Show" are down compared to previous years, a symptom of the ongoing migration of viewers from traditional television to on-demand viewing and streaming through non-network sources.

The late-night television landscape is wider than it has ever been before, and a multitude of choices are available for viewers chasing different types of content. While political humor and social commentary has been dominating the current scene, it's possible for people to find almost any combination of host and show to vibe with their taste. The next year of late-night TV will continue to respond to the expanding desires of audiences and the continued pressure that digital media is exerting on traditional TV.