Float Like a Butterfly: Samantha Bee Stings the Late-Night Boy's Club

TBS's 'Full Frontal' Is Cable's Hottest New Show

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'Full Frontal': The alternative to the late-night sausage party.
'Full Frontal': The alternative to the late-night sausage party. Credit: TBS

Late-night TV remains something of a furry-knuckled boys' club, but with five weeks of her long-awaited satirical news show under her belt, Samantha Bee has put cable's reigning chuckle bros on notice.

Since premiering on Feb. 8, TBS's "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" has out-delivered two of the three cable late-night franchises while making short work of at least one broadcast chat show. A month into its run, "Full Frontal" also boasts one of the highest concentrations of viewers in its target demo (adults 18 to 49).

After debuting last month across five Turner networks in front of an audience of 2.2 million viewers -- recall that when Trevor Noah began his tenure behind the desk of "The Daily Show," he drew 3.48 million viewers across a dozen Viacom channels -- "Full Frontal" is now averaging 620,000 viewers and an 0.3 rating in the dollar demo on TBS. Nestled in the Monday 10:30 p.m. time slot, where it sets the table for Conan O'Brien's hour-long show, "Full Frontal" has outperformed its lead-out by 55%, which represents an advantage of nearly 495,000 demographically apposite viewers over the course of four weeks.

("Conan" was in repeats on Feb. 15, Ms. Bee's second week on the air.)

In the same period, "Full Frontal" also out-delivered Comedy Central's Monday edition of "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" by more than 250,000 adults 18 to 49 and, perhaps more impressively, narrowly beat CBS's "The Late Late Show with James Corden" -- around 60,000 members of the 18-to-49 crowd.

While "Full Frontal" has yet to put up bigger numbers than those delivered by the new regime at Ms. Bee's old stomping grounds -- altogether, the Monday night installments of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" that aired on the same dates have attracted nearly 400,000 more targeted viewers -- the TBS show boasts a far more balanced male/female viewer ratio. Twice as many 18-to-49-year-old men as women tune into "The Daily Show," but the ratio for "Full Frontal" is three men for every two women. In fact, despite reaching nearly 30% fewer overall viewers than Mr. Noah's Monday night shows, "Full Frontal" is in a statistical dead heat with "The Daily Show" among women 18 to 49.

That "Full Frontal" has been able to elbow its way into the rugby scrum that is satirical TV is noteworthy for a number of reasons over which Ms. Bee and her team of writers have no control. As is the case with John Oliver's HBO show, "Last Week Tonight," "Full Frontal" airs but one night a week. If the schedule is a gag writer/field-segment producer's dream, it also neutralizes any sense of immediacy the show might have as a nightly telecast. Moreover, by definition, "Full Frontal" is not a late-night show. It airs in the final half-hour of prime time, and so while it is spared any head-to-head competition from the likes of the Jimmies, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, it also must contend with the big-reach broadcast dramas ("Blindspot," "NCIS: Los Angeles, "Castle") and all the other sundry allurements and distractions of its slot.

The protean nature of "Full Frontal" is evident in its premiere numbers. Home base TBS claimed the second largest audience during the inaugural simulcast, averaging 629,000 viewers and a 0.3 adults 18-to-49 rating, while the stoner clique that is Adult Swim scared up 986,000 Sam Bee enthusiasts and a 0.5 in the demo. And though an enviable 60% of the audience falls between the 18-to-49 bookends, Ms. Bee's appeal to younger viewers is also plain in the current Nielsen data. Monday night's show was the sixth highest-rated cable telecast among the 18-to-34 set, out-gunning a range of concurrent options that included the premiere of "Damien" (A&E's adaptation of "The Omen" horror franchise) and the "Vanderpump Rules After Show" on Bravo.

Ms. Bee and her staff couldn't have asked for a better moment to hop into the national conversation, which over the last several months has been reduced to a series of hoots and harrumphs and hollers. Launching a week after the Iowa Caucus, "Full Frontal" immediately was confronted with a "where do we even start?" surfeit of targets. The unprecedentedly out-there presidential race has been an all-you-can-eat buffet (try the bellicose sentient yam!) for comedians, offering everything from the sparsely-attended funeral that was the Jeb "Please Clap" Bush campaign to the "Human Che Guevara T-Shirt" that is Bernie Sanders.

"Full Frontal" takes full advantage of its cable perogative, and Ms. Bee's spectral analysis of the methane cloud of politcial discourse has attracted a broad array of advertisers. Movie studios looking to reach the show's young, wised-up audience have snapped up inventory; repeat theatrical customers include DC Entertainment ("Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"), 20th Century Fox ("Eddie the Eagle") and Focus Features. The latter has ponied up to promote three rather distinct upcoming releases: "London Has Fallen," "The Young Messiah" and "Race."

In fact, repeat business and/or long-term commitments make up the bulk of TBS' "Full Frontal" sales. Among the brands that have appeared in multiple "Full Frontal" telecasts are Burger King, T-Mobile, AT&T, Hyundai, Henry's Hard Soda, Motorola, Samsung, Mazda, Redd's Apple Ale and Wendy's. QSR and packaged foods are well represented; along with the two aforementioned fast-food chaons, Chili's, Dairy Queen, Taco Bell and Popeyes have bought time in the show, as have Lay's, Jolly Rancher, Pop-Tarts and Cheetos. A more formidable lineup of munchies-alleviating brands you're unlikely to see, outside of an episode of "Rick and Morty."

At the moment, "Full Frontal" is practically a steal, as media buyers estimate that the average unit cost is pricing out at about a tenth of what a 30-second spot in "Conan" fetches. But ratings have grown steadily over the last three weeks and the show's subject material isn't exactly going to dry up any time soon. If Ms. Bee and Co. can continue to build on their momentum, look for TBS to push for much higher pricing in the coming upfront.

The initial series order for "Full Frontal" was 13 epsiodes, and a renewal is expected to be announced before Turner makes its upfront presentation to buyers and advertisers in New York on May 18.