Comedy Central is entering the home stretch of a humor-rich presidential election one man down.
The Viacom-owned cable channel canceled "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" this week less than two years after Mr. Wilmore inherited the 11:30 p.m. time slot from Stephen Colbert, leaving a gaping hole in its late-night schedule at a time when all eyes will be on satirical late-night talkers.
The abrupt end to Mr. Wilmore's show is another sign of how Comedy Central is struggling following the loss of Mr. Colbert and "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, less than a year apart from each other.
Mr. Wilmore, and Trevor Noah, who replaced Mr. Stewart, have been unable to replicate the success of their predecessors. As a result, the network has lost some clout among marketers, with several media buyers saying demand for commercial time on the channel has softened since Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart abdicated their perches.
But Comedy Central says the number of advertisers in late-night has not changed since the departure of Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart, noting that they have more advertisers in the daypart than even two years ago when they were both still on the air.
While advertisers are not actively fleeing the network, some marketers who once considered Comedy Central a "must-buy" are no longer specifically requesting it as part of their media plans, buyers said.
"Comedy Central's value to clients has definitely taken a hit since the departure of Stewart and Colbert," one media buyer said. "This is probably worse than we expected."
"Demand is not as high going into the election" as it would have been if Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert were still at the network, according to a second media buyer.
The absence of these two big personalities, coupled with the lack of a late-night talker at 11:30 p.m. could send some marketers looking elsewhere as we approach Election Day. In the near-term, Comedy Central is moving Chris Hardwick's pop culture game show "@Midnight" into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.
"I think it's unfortunate that they'll be heading into the election without the 11:30 show," a third buyer said. "That would definitely be somewhere we would have looked to focus leading up to the election."
But an incredibly strong TV upfront selling season, especially for late-night, certainly worked in Comedy Central's favor. Hearty demand for topical comedy shows, along with declining ratings, meant there was a dearth of inventory, leaving some networks actually turning away ad dollars, said Carrie Drinkwater, senior VP-group director-investment activation, MediaHub, a division of MullenLowe.
According to a Comedy Central spokesman, the top 20 biggest advertisers during this year's upfront showed similar demand to the prior year for the network's late-night programming.
"There is no fall off of advertisers," he said via email. "100% of advertisers who bought Comedy Central late-night during the 2015-2016 upfront also bought again in 2016-2017 upfront. Some advertisers wanted to increase spending beyond the levels that we could accommodate them."
It is worth noting that during both last year and this year's upfronts advertisers who bought time in late-night were buying Mr. Noah and Mr. Wilmore, as both Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert had ended their runs ahead of the 2015-2016 upfronts.
For marketers looking for younger, more upscale audiences on TV, Comedy Central is still an important outlet, said Catherine Warburton, chief investment officer, Assembly.
"The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" boasts an audience with a median income of $71,500. Under Mr. Noah, the show has also attracted a more diverse audience, with 25% of viewers identifying as non-white versus 17% when Jon Stewart was on the air.
And the ability for advertisers to tap Comedy Central's talent for custom content also makes the network an attractive buy.
"'The Daily Show' was off-limits to us in the past," said Chris Ficarra, exec VP-Velocity, Viacom's integrated marketing arm. Velocity was unable to offer advertisers the opportunity to integrate into "The Daily Show" while Mr. Stewart sat in the anchor chair.
Where Mr. Stewart wasn't open to working with advertisers for in-show integrations, Mr. Noah has been hands-on in creating content for marketers that lives both in the show and on other platforms, Mr. Ficarra said.
"The Daily Show" is currently sold out of its election packages, Mr. Ficarra added.
And "@Midnight" has also been a "workhorse" for Comedy Central as it relates to integrations, Mr. Ficarra said.
While it may seem like an inopportune time for Comedy Central to release Mr. Wilmore, Ms. Drinkwater said making the decision when the network realized the show wasn't resonating with viewers rather than waiting it out was the right move.
"The millennial-audience advertisers are finding they have very specific tastes in what they want to watch and if it isn't working they need to change it," Ms. Drinkwater said.
And the increase in eyeballs and attention during the election could provide Comedy Central an opportunity to test new concepts, she added.
This is the first major move by Comedy Central's new president, Kent Alterman, who took the reins from Michele Ganeless in June.
The decision to end "Nightly Show" helps set the goals for a network where audiences are more inclined to watch content on platforms and devices that have thus far been a challenge to measure and monetize.
Comedy Central is down 28% in the all-important 18-to-49 demo in late-night since the departure of Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart, according to Billie Gold, VP-director of programming research, Amplifi U.S., part of the Dentsu Aegis Network. It also lost 23% of its total audience in the time slot based on Nielsen live-plus-same-day figures.
And in primetime, Comedy Central has shed 15% of its total audience, averaging 527,000 viewers between September and August compared with the same period last year. It's also down 18% in the demo over last year.
The network as a whole is also getting older, with the median age growing from 30 in 2014 to 35 this year.
While Comedy Central certainly has some bright spots like "Broad City" and "Inside Amy Schumer," it also lost the popular sketch-comedy show "Key and Peele" last year and has seen several of its most promising talent like Samantha Bee and John Oliver move to other networks to host their own shows.
In an effort to show just how funny Comedy Central can still be even without some of its most popular voices, the network hosted its first-ever, standalone upfront presentation this spring.
And Comedy Central has been aggressive in tapping both established and less familiar talent to revive its schedule. The network is developing 15 new specials and 21 new scripted shows with stars like Kevin Hart, Jeff Ross and Will Farrell. And in an effort to retain talent it had a hand in discovering, it is developing shows for "The Daily Show" staples Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper.
It's also been very strategic in how it has been utilizing Mr. Noah, making "The Daily Show" accessible across a bevy of social platforms frequented by millennials. "The Daily Show" was the No. 2 most-watched show on Hulu in July, and it has been leaning heavily on platforms like Snapchat.
For advertisers, this means their integrations can live beyond the TV and be delivered to viewers in more ways, Mr. Ficarra said.
While Mr. Noah has certainly generated more buzz than Mr. Wilmore, with him in the anchor chair, "The Daily Show" has lost 38% of Mr. Stewart's total viewers -- 1.3 million compared with about 2 million for Mr. Stewart's final season.
And for the first time in 16 years, "The Daily Show" was not nominated for an Emmy in the best variety show category.
But a Comedy Central spokesman said the network is happy with the show's growth among younger viewers, noting that "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" is the second highest-rated late-night show on TV among men 18-34.