If you want to understand the state of American political media, look no further than the “sharp decline” in ratings for Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, who has lost a fifth of his audience, year-over-year, since this fall’s TV season began and is now losing ground among 18- to 49-year-olds.
Fallon has largely avoided biting political attacks directed at President Donald Trump. But instead of being rewarded for remaining a bastion of lighthearted and apolitical comedy, he is losing to Stephen Colbert, and risks being bested by Jimmy Kimmel.
This is no coincidence. Colbert’s The Late Show staggered out of the gate, gaining steam only after rebranding as an anti-Trump destination. This happened around the same time Colbert hired former Morning Joe Executive Producer Chris Licht. While Fallon was still reeling from having tousled Trump’s hair (how could he normalize this man?), Colbert surpassed Fallon.
A New York Times story about Fallon’s ratings problem sums up the lesson in simple terms: “For late-night hosts, being sharply critical of President Trump is a winning strategy. And that is bad news for The Tonight Show.”
It’s also bad news for viewers—who will ultimately be given what we want (not what we need) by programmers whose only goal is higher ratings.
Anyone with a Facebook page knows that abrasive content works better than non-abrasive content. This, of course, creates perverse incentives for producers, hosts, and commentators provide more and more of it.
“The bad news for us, you know, as a business, is that this really difficult presidency… drives viewers to this kind of programming,” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell recently told comedian Adam Carolla. “Stephen Colbert has skyrocketed because of his anti-Trump stance every night that he does relentlessly.”
The lesson derived from Fallon’s fall and Colbert’s rise isn’t confined to late-night comedy shows. In this competitive media world, formulas for success are quickly extrapolated and replicated across media platforms.
Let’s take this almost-daily column you are reading right now. On Monday, this columnist wrote a piece about how good men and women could work together to solve the problem of sexual abuse. And on Tuesday, I wrote a pretty harsh (but fair) piece about conservative provocateur James O’Keefe’s botched “sting” operation against The Washington Post. The first piece was a writer earnestly searching for a solution to a pressing problem; the second was me railing against a conservative movement that lines the pockets of activists like O’Keefe.
Which one do you think garnered more buzz on Twitter?
If my sole goal was to generate buzz and clicks, which type of column do you think I would replicate?
My column about O’Keefe lamented the fact that conservative entrepreneurs are tailoring their activism to suit rich conservative donors, regardless of whether it helps or hurts the cause of conservatism. A similar dynamic is at work with the mainstream media. Eventually, we get what we reward because people who want our money respond to incentives. If you don’t like today’s polarized political or media environment, look in the mirror.
Everyone says they want less yelling and less salacious content and more serious, thoughtful news and commentary. But this is a lie. The media is one giant feedback loop. We give you what you demand, and you reward us with clicks and ratings and buzz. Nobody wants to eat their vegetables; we want to eat candy and cake. We don’t want to be challenged, we want our opinions reinforced. The best we can hope for may be to hide some vegetables in the mashed potatoes.
What would you do if you were a TV host or writer hoping to survive in this highly competitive environment?
In a business that is increasingly about garnering attention, tweets, and “likes,” your career options are increasingly clear: Either get with the program (like Colbert) or founder (like Fallon).