Viewership has surged almost 40% in the last decade, according to Nielsen Media Research. Late-night network talk shows, once the province of borscht belt retreads, now count presidential aspirants and otherwise press-weary personalities among their couch regulars. Then there's cable, which has evolved its way-after-dark offerings from monster movies to sophisticated chat, satire and humor.
The late-night daypart has been on the receiving end of an avalanche of good press, and even better viewer/marketer support. "Even with everybody having a nuclear-powered remote control, late-night has such audience loyalty," says Marty Daly, senior VP-director of news and late-night sales at Viacom's CBS. "For advertisers, it's one of the few places where you can take relatively small amounts of money and make them go a long way."
But the sustained success of broadcast and cable options in late-night over the last 18 months has spurred the inevitable backlash. Conversations about the daypart may begin with some variation on "It's the best place to reach that elusive young male audience," but they quickly veer into "Late-night's getting older." Approaching the upfront selling period, national media buyers question whether late-night might be ever-so-slightly overhyped as a marketing option.
"It's too early to know what advertisers are going to do [at the upfront], but if this year's scatter market is any indication, I don't see them going to late-night," says Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director at WPP Group's MindShare North America, New York. "If we don't see one or two categories embrace the daypart, you'll see [the networks] struggle to maintain pricing."
"The price for the daypart has gotten sort of out of whack vs. other alternatives," adds Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. "There was some price adjustment in last year's upfront. I'd imagine there will be more in the one upcoming."
Additionally, network executives have backed off their earlier pronouncements that late-night talkers are "TiVo-proof"; they now concede that a small percentage of viewers enjoy their Conan or Craig with an early-morning bowl of oatmeal and some OJ.
All this said, most observers state that what interests them most about the late-night space is the simmering broadcast-vs.-cable duel. Two surging cable entities, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Viacom's Comedy Central and the Adult Swim block of razor-edged cartoons on Time Warner's Cartoon Network, have loosened the broadcast networks' late-night stranglehold on young male viewers.
These cable shows can't approach the reach of the broadcast network offerings-"You'd have to buy 20-25 cable networks to get the eyeballs you'd get from combining two of the network shows," Mr. Daly notes-but they provide an exceedingly targeted young male environment.
Adult Swim "has done very, very well capturing the lower end of the late-night target," Mr. Maltby says. "It's unified the particularly male, 18-24 audience in one spot. It's taking away some of the dollars that people were pumping into network just hoping to get those viewers but weren't really reaching them."
AND THEN THERE'S JON
As for "The Daily Show," media analyst Larry Gerbrandt notes with admiration that it has continued to grow in influence without spawning much in the way of copycats. Jon Stewart "is every bit as sophisticated as Letterman, but [his audience is] younger. You get the news junkies, too," Mr. Gerbrandt says.
From a marketing perspective, one key factor that differentiates late-night from other dayparts is that its occupants aren't above having a little fun with the tactics they use. Take an upcoming episode of Adult Swim's "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," which boasts the show's first-ever product integration. A writer describes its premise thusly: "[The character] Shake brings a life-size Boost Mobile phone character into the Aqua Teen household to make money off gratuitous product placing. Shake constantly touts the features of Boost Mobile products, such as downloadable ringtones, battery life and GPS, and repeats the company's slogans ad nauseam. Fed up with Shake's selling out, Frylock tricks him into taking the phone out of its coverage area, causing it to die."
Adult Swim creator Mike Lazzo notes the obvious-that such sharp-elbowed tie-ins aren't for everyone-but he believes that younger late-night viewers will be attracted to those marketers, as well as those shows, that attempt to play the product integration card slyly. "Whenever I see some random soda can on a table, I just groan," Mr. Lazzo says. "If you're going to do it, just do it. Don't pretend that it's natural."
Unlike reality TV mavens, everybody in late-night seems quite cognizant that they can only push the commerce angle so far. CBS late-night host David Letterman is legendary among marketers for refusing to play ball, but other networks and performers seem more receptive. For instance, at NBC Universal's NBC, "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" has featured "The Lincoln Garage Concert Series," in which the Ford Motor Co. brand sponsors a Friday night music performance. Similarly, Mr. Daly notes that late-night newbie Craig Ferguson has embraced what the CBS executive describes as "billboard opportunities" on "The Late Late Show."
At Comedy Central, Lauren Corrao, senior VP-original programming and head of development, urges restraint. "Look at sports-there's nothing in those broadcasts that isn't sponsored by someone," she says. "Nobody here wants that."
But at the same time, Ms. Corrao acknowledges that "carefully placed moments [of product integration] are a part of life now." Given the segment-based nature of most late-night programming, which makes attaching sponsorships considerably easier than in narrative prime-time shows, she expects the pressure to intensify for late-night programmers to accept such commercial alternatives.
Pundits agree that the amount of late-night programming is set to surge in the months and years ahead, but otherwise offer wildly disparate opinions about the daypart's future. As unanimous as they are in their praise of "The Daily Show" and Adult Swim, some wonder whether those shows will be able to retain their audience as viewers inch toward their 30s.
Theories also abound as to the eventual late-night fates of Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and News Corp.'s Fox, but even those who profess to have spent countless hours digging for the scoop have little idea of the direction in which the networks are headed.
Noting that ABC has long been a late-night "contrarian" (Leno, Letterman, Koppel: Which one is different from the others?), Mr. Gerbrandt suggests the Alphabet Network could eventually fill the space with something quite different from talk or news, possibly even a drama.
As for Fox, nobody doubts the net's ability to lure younger viewers, but they question whether affiliates bringing in big bucks via "Seinfeld" reruns would be eager to take a chance on a network offering. Fox "would have to go to them with a show that simply cannot fail," says Ms. Corrao, who headed late-night programming at Fox in the late 1990s.
Adult Swim has plans to bump up its starting time to 10 p.m. from 11 p.m., and Mr. Lazzo believes it will eventually morph into a network of its own.
As for the evolution of late-night marketing, Mr. Gerbrandt envisions a blast from the past. "Live commercials were a huge part of `The Tonight Show' during the Johnny era," he points out. "I wouldn't be totally surprised to see somebody do that-maybe turn the commercials almost into comedy bits like Ed McMahon did. You actually looked forward to seeing how he'd screw them up."
Late-night evolving to look more like it did in its 1950s-60s infancy? The irony wouldn't be lost on any of its hosts.