BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Why do Americans care about late night TV?

Sleeping man with remote
Some people just like staying up late for shows

By Elizabeth Diffin and Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

In the US there's been a messy scuffle over which highly-paid talk show host gets the plum 11.30pm slot - a time that hardly registers in the UK. So is late night television more important in the US?

A repeat of quiz show 8 Out Of 10 Cats. A documentary on Scottish architecture. Coverage of a poker tournament. A Dolph Lundgren film. The remade Krypton Factor. And politics show This Week, hosted by Andrew Neil.

These are some of the offerings available to a British TV viewer who tunes in to one of the five main channels at 11.30pm over the next week.

But in the US, this timeslot is so hotly contested that NBC has reportedly paid millions to remove Conan O'Brien as host of the Tonight Show and reinstate his predecessor, Jay Leno. O'Brien hosts his last episode on Friday, and Leno returns on 1 March.

Jay Leno
Jay Leno took over from the legendary Johnny Carson in 1992

Leno left the flagship talk show last autumn to dip his toes in the waters of prime time. But when his new show haemorrhaged viewers in the space of a few short months - as did O'Brien's Tonight Show - Leno decided to return to his old stamping ground. O'Brien at first refused to budge.

For non-Americans, the most surprising aspect of this ding-dong is how millions are spent on a show that goes out between 11.35pm and 12.35am - often a bit of a graveyard slot on British television.

The Tonight Show and its rival The Late Show with David Letterman together pull in more than nine million viewers. This is a tiny minority in a population of about 308 million, but nonetheless important as most are aged between 18 and 49 - a key audience for advertisers.

The late-night talk show has been a staple of American programming for the best part of half a century, and a jewel in the crown of the networks. Part variety show, part chat show, part topical sketch show, it's a format - and a timeslot - that's never really caught on in the UK.

Yawning doctor
Late-night TV cuts into those eight hours sleep a night

And the Tonight Show's longevity - born in the 1950s, it came to full flower under Johnny Carson - means it's traditional for many Americans to stay up late for must-see TV.

Its closest British equivalent is Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, which uses similar ingredients - star guests, a house band, a monologue from the host - but goes out an hour earlier.

"The British want late-night [style shows] once a week," says cultural commentator Mark Lawson, adding a five-nights-a-week show would be difficult to pull off in the UK as potential guests are scarcer.

The types of show broadcast - and in which slots - remain virtually unchanged in the UK, says Mr Lawson, as television is a "fantastically conservative medium".

Michael Parkinson tried to make a Johnny Carson-style show 40 years ago, but the BBC governors blocked the idea because it was "too American".

Lack of sleep

In the UK, the ratings battle is at its hottest between 6 and 11pm, says media consultant Steve Hewlett. "In the old days, which weren't that long ago, [UK] television stations weren't even on all day, let alone all night. People were watching television through the night in America when we only had three channels."

And the UK's so-called "post-pub" slot between 10.30pm and midnight has seen a lot of experimentation to attract younger, more up-market viewers. "[The shows] do OK, but they're not likely to break the bank," says Mr Hewlett. "We've never seen competition like that in the UK."

The lack of television regulation in the US led to multi-channel, 24-hour programming much earlier than in the UK and contributed to an "all-you-can-eat" viewing culture.

Friday Night with Jonathan Ross - and guest Miley Cryus
Jonathan Ross is the closest British equivalent

This diet of TV late at night is a key reason up to 40% of Americans get less than the "recommended" seven to eight hours of sleep, according to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania.

People who work an eight-hour day tend to stay up just as late as those who do not, but sacrifice sleep in the morning rather than skip the tradition of watching late-night shows. Except now perhaps they are catching up on that episode of CSI that screened in primetime alongside Grey's Anatomy.

Digital video recorders and multi-channel viewing have changed the way we watch TV, and their viewing patterns reflect this. In the US, 33% of homes with TVs also have a digital recorder - up from 27% a year ago. The research firm Nielsen predicts this will climb to 49% of American households by 2011, and it expects almost a quarter of all TV viewing will be of recorded, rather than live, shows.

This is, in part, why Americans no longer tune in in such numbers to watch the late-night talk shows - in the genre's heyday, Carson pulled in about 12 million viewers.

"We as consumers are less dependent on linear schedules," says Mr Hewlett. "It doesn't matter when it broadcasts."

And the funny candid videos that once made late-night TV shows perfect water-cooler fodder? Chances are it's already done the rounds of the office on MyTubeTwittBook.

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