Late-Night Wars

Chelsea Handler May Actually ‘Revolutionize’ Talk Shows

Announcing a new deal with Netflix for an on-demand talk show, Chelsea Handler may completely change the way we watch talk shows—and save the genre while she’s at it.

Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times, Redux

Chelsea Lately is about to become Chelsea Anytime You Want Her.

Two months before her E! talk show is set to wrap up its eight-year run, Chelsea Handler announced that her next move will be a partnership with Netflix on a new on-demand talk show that will premiere in early 2016. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, in a statement, championed the unconventional nature of the series, which will be a late-night talk show that doesn’t even air in late night and can instead be watched any time.

“Netflix is looking forward to reimagining the late-night talk show for the on-demand generation, starting with the late night part…” Sarandos said. Even more boldly, Netflix’s press release touting the partnership with Handler (a multi-year deal that also includes a handful of comedy specials) proclaims that it will “revolutionize” the talk show.

That’s a pretty big statement to make. And it may actually be true. Maybe.

The idea of on-demand talk show actually suggests that Hollywood executives are paying attention to trends in late-night talk, which is to say that fewer and fewer people are watching talk in late night.

Read any article on the genius of Jimmy Fallon’s rebranding of the Tonight Show and they’ll cite the way he’s managed to package his daily show into bite-sized bits that are easily consumable as they go viral…the next morning. Ask anyone if they’ve seen Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” segment and they’ll respond enthusiastically with how much they love it. Ask them if they’ve seen him interview a celebrity on his show recently—or ever—and they’ll stare blankly back at you.

The late-night programming that we’re watching these days is actually programming that you can watch any time. In other words, we’re kind of already watching late-night on-demand. We’re not watching Jimmy Fallon’s silly skits at 11:35 p.m. each night. We’re watching them whenever our old college roommate posts them on Facebook. Netflix isn’t revolutionizing that viewing habit, it’s taking advantage of it.

Of course, online talk shows are nothing new, either. Larry King’s been hosting one on Hulu. YouTube has more of them than it knows what to do with. This Chelsea Handler and Netflix deal, then, is only really remarkable because of how high-profile it is.

The circumstances surrounding Handler’s move to Netflix actually seem quite similar to the ones present before Conan O’Brien launched his talk show on TBS. Handler had already announced she was leaving E! and was ready to be a free agent, and made it very clear that she was bored by the structure and subject matter Chelsea Lately was concerned with and more creative (read: less restrictive) outlets. Since that announcement, there’s been a din of media buzz over where she’ll land next.

There will no doubt be equally obsessive coverage when Handler does actually debut on Netflix, with everyone excited to see what’s next for her following her to the streaming service. It will be just like how all of Team Coco tuned in for the first batch of episodes of Conan. Only, as time passed and the buzz surrounding O’Brien wore off, they all-but abandoned the talk show host completely.

The challenge facing Handler, then, is to keep the attention of this “on-demand generation” after the initial piqued curiosity. The thing about programming in the age of the on-demand generation is that there’s a hell of a lot of it. Just as live broadcasts of The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live are competing for attention with countless other broadcast series, DVR’d episodes of things that already aired, and people’s binging marathons on various streaming services, an on-demand talk show from Chelsea Handler will be competing in that space. Can she—unlike Conan on TBS, or Larry King on Hulu—keep their attention?

I think she can. Here’s the thing: there’s a reason why there was such a vocal campaign for Handler to take over the Late show for David Letterman…and then the Late Late show for Craig Ferguson. There is a desperate desire—and a worthy one, at that—to have a woman in late night, specifically on a broadcast network. Viewership may be down on those late-night talkers, but there’s still a prestige associated with them and it’s about time that prestige go to someone who’s not a dorky white guy in a suit.

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There was a contingent that wrote Handler off as a candidate because her comedy was apparently too edgy to fly on a broadcast network. The older demographic who are more reliably viewers of late-night would be turned off by it. But that’s why she would’ve been perfect to shake up the late-night boys’ club.

If you watch Chelsea Lately, it becomes evident that this “Chelsea Handler is so raunchy and raw and shocking” reputation is a bit outsized compared to her actual comedy. There’s this presumption that’s been exacerbated over time that she’s an excessively edgy comedian, but her comedy is actually pretty palatable, even by broadcast network standards. Hiring her for one of those late-night slots would’ve been the perfect opportunity to send a message to viewers that the network is being edgy and progressive and controversial while actually producing a show that would still go down pretty easy for advertisers and more buttoned-up viewers.

That same notion applies to why Handler could succeed as an on-demand talk show host.

There’s this idea that she’s been shackled by network censors, unable to really let her unfiltered opinions flow freely, four-letter words and all. How tantalizing, then, for fans of hers, or people who are at least interested in her and her comedic perspective, to be able to watch her on a streaming service where propriety, language, and subject matter aren’t dictated by advertisers or restrained by censors. How tantalizing, too, for celebrities who are eager to unwind from a meticulously orchestrated and controlled press tour with an interview on a talk show where they can curse and tell raunchy stories and depart ever-slightly-from the PR scripts they’re so often given.

There’s a simple reason the Jimmys, Fallon and Kimmel, continue to dominate the pop-culture conversation with their viral videos: they continue to make great content. If Handler gets to let loose this allegedly ribald humor that’s been stifled these past years on Chelsea Lately and can land big guests for the kinds of interviews that we never get to see on broadcast television, her show would become priority viewing. It’s on-demand programming we’d watch because—and it’s remarkable that executives still don’t get this—it’s the kind of programming we demand.

There are still loads of crucial questions surrounding Netflix’s partnership with Handler. How will the talk show be released? Will an entire season, or week’s worth of programming be released in one giant, binge-ready batch, as is the service’s M.O.? Or will it be more traditionally released, episodically at the same time every day?

There’s still something exciting and even revolutionary, though, in not knowing what we’re going to be getting.