The Trump Era Is Affecting Late-Night TV Ratings

February 8, 2017, 7:34 PM UTC

We’re less than a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and one of his chief critics on late-night television is already seeing a ratings boost.

Stephen Colbert and CBS’s The Late Show scored a major victory by pulling in more viewers than NBC’s Jimmy Fallon during the week of Jan. 30 to Feb. 3. Colbert, who took over the The Late Show in the fall of 2015, has mostly played second fiddle to Fallon’s Tonight Show in the late-night TV ratings race. But, last week, Colbert’s program averaged 2.8 million nightly viewers to just barely eke out Fallon’s total by roughly 12,000 viewers, according to Nielsen’s audience data.

It’s important to note that Fallon still easily won the weekly ratings in terms of the coveted demographic of adults between the ages of 18 and 49, with a 0.67 rating compared to Colbert’s 0.48. On ABC (DIS), rival comedian Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t far behind Colbert in the younger demo (0.45 rating) last week, but he attracted only 2.06 million total viewers. For the current television season overall, Fallon is averaging 3.37 million nightly viewers, compared to 2.95 million for Colbert and 2.25 for Kimmel. (Fallon also holds a healthy lead in the younger demo ratings for the full season.)

Still, as The New York Times noted on Tuesday, last week marked the first time in approximately a year and a half that Colbert topped Fallon’s viewership. Colbert’s CBS show (CBS) posted a strong debut in September 2015 only to ultimately settle well behind Fallon in the late-night ratings race. Colbert’s recent viewership win is no small feat, and it seems to be part of an overall upward trend for The Late Show ratings, as the show came within 8,000 viewers of Fallon’s average during the week of Jan. 16, the week leading up to Trump’s inauguration. (Colbert aired re-runs the week of Jan. 23.)

Colbert’s brand of political comedy is known to be popular with liberal viewers, many of whom tuned in to watch his satirical egomaniac alter-ego on the Colbert Report during that show’s 10-season run on Viacom’s Comedy Central (VIAB). Since debuting on the The Late Show, Colbert’s left-leaning views have often been cited as a possible reason why he trailed Fallon’s ratings. But, more recently, Colbert’s nightly skewering of the new Trump administration seems to be growing his audience, while Fallon’s numbers may have dipped after the NBC comedian took some heat during last year’s election for going too easy on Trump during the then-candidate’s late-night visit.

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It likely helps that Colbert that Trump currently suffers from the lowest presidential approval ratings in modern times while the new presidential administration seems to be making controversial storylines every day that make the perfect fodder for prodding from late-night comedians. Last spring, Colbert brought in a new executive producer to help breathe life into his show’s ratings. Since then, he’s ramped up his show’s political bent, airing several live shows during last summer’s political conventions and presidential debates in order to ensure fresher, up-to-date jokes in his opening monologues. Colbert has also turned to fellow political comedians such as his former Daily Show colleagues Jon Stewart and John Oliver to come on his show as guests, creating various viral moments in which they take turns riffing on the current political landscape.

Colbert is the clearly the most political of the three late-night comedians competing at the 11:30 p.m. ET time-slot, but he isn’t the only late-night host looking to ride the wave of anti-Trump sentiment. On broadcast TV, Seth Meyers, who hosts Late Night on NBC (CMCSA) following Fallon’s show, has carved out a niche as the late-late-night opposition voice to Trump, while comedians like Samantha Bee (TBS’ Full Frontal) and John Oliver (HBO’s Last Week Tonight) picked up their own fervent followings during the election.

Also on TBS (TWX), Conan O’Brien made a statement recently when he announced that he will film a special episode of his show, Conan, in Mexico City next month in an effort to distract from all of the negativity existing between the U.S. and Mexico as a result of Trump’s insistence on building a border wall and forcing Mexico to foot the bill.

And, there could be even more political-leaning jokes coming to nighttime television soon. NBC’s Saturday Night Live—a favorite sparring partner for Trump that mocks the president on a weekly basis—is reportedly in talks to launch a primetime weeknight spin-off of the show’s “Weekend Update” segment that riffs on news stories.

What’s more, while this was the first election in some time to be without nightly contributions from Jon Stewart, the former Daily Show host’s long-awaited planned project with HBO—a series of animated shows mocking cable news—is also expected to launch sometime this winter.