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News / Life / Entertainment

LateNighter hopes to buck trends

Who’s laughing? News site tracks late-night television

By DAVID BAUDER, Associated Press
Published: May 17, 2024, 6:04am

NEW YORK — At first glance, Jed Rosenzweig’s new venture would seem like a fool’s errand: launching a digital news site during brutal economic times for the media to cover an industry that, by traditional measures, is waning in influence.

That didn’t dissuade him. LateNighter, a website and newsletter that follows late-night television comedy, began operations in February.

There’s been plenty to chew on since then, including Jon Stewart’s return to “The Daily Show,” John Mulaney’s new Netflix show, Jimmy Kimmel’s feud with Donald Trump, Conan O’Brien resurfacing online and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s emergence as a comic foil.

“I haven’t come to this project from a business perspective, so much so much as a passion,” said Rosenzweig, a veteran entertainment journalist based in Portland. “I certainly want it to succeed, and I think it will. … There’s an appetite and a void that we’re looking to fill.”

He hasn’t released any metrics that would indicate how the site is catching on. LateNighter is a small operation, with only two full-time employees, and was essentially self-funded. Rosenzweig is also behind the sister website, Primetimer, and the TV Tattle subscription newsletter. His creation and subsequent sale, at an opportune time, of the home entertainment review site High Def Digest gave him some money to invest, although LateNighter will soon take paid ads.

His 13-year-old son Lem’s obsession with “Saturday Night Live” inspired LateNighter, Rosenzweig said.

A couple of influential contributors brought gravitas at the start. Bill Carter, author of “The Late Shift” and one of the industry’s most important chroniclers while at The New York Times, is a regular writer. Eric Deggans, TV critic at NPR, has also agreed to do occasional pieces, like an interview with Dulce Sloan of “The Daily Show” that discussed diversity in late-night.

“I’m not sure how often I can do stories for them,” Deggans said, “but I’m excited by the opportunity to dig deeper into a genre that has helped build so much of the modern comedy world.”

By television ratings alone, late-night isn’t the force it used to be. The quartet of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” CBS’ “Late Show,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Daily Show” collectively averaged 10.5 million viewers a night a decade ago. Now, together they pull in 4.8 million people a night, the Nielsen company said. Ad revenue for the shows dropped by 70 percent between 2015 and 2023.

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Asked for an evaluation of LateNighter, former Comedy Central chief executive Doug Herzog said it “seems cool. And maybe 10 years too late.”

Yet broadcast network entertainment in general has collapsed with cord-cutting and the rise of programming on streaming services. Mulaney’s new effort notwithstanding, streaming hasn’t been able to replicate the late-night comedy genre. The first “SNL” cast was dubbed the Not Ready for Prime Time Players in the 1970s; this season, the sketch comedy show is NBC’s most-watched entertainment show among viewers under age 50 — better than anything in prime-time.

Besides, television ratings don’t reflect the way many people follow late-night stars these days — through highlight clips posted online.

“You can make the argument that it’s more influential today than it ever has been,” Rosenzweig said.

In its short life, LateNighter has shown the potential to be a solid, creative news source. It wrote an oral history of a groundbreaking Madonna appearance on David Letterman’s show, for instance. After O.J. Simpson died, it wrote about his impact on late-night comedy.

The website provides a morning-after recap of late-night monologues — suggested by Kimmel, Rosenzweig said — that has proven so popular that some readers asked for an email alert when it is posted.

Carter writes a few times a week, contributing pieces about the history of “SNL” stars appearing at the White House correspondents’ dinner, then evaluating Colin Jost’s performance this year. Carter’s reputation enabled LateNighter to land an interview with Jimmy Fallon only weeks after the site’s start, a signal to the industry to take it seriously.

Besides standard news and features, LateNighter crunches numbers looking for trends. Each week, it measures how many minutes “SNL” cast members get on the air and the length of each guest host’s monologue. It has calculated which weeknight show gets the most laughs per hour (Seth Meyers during the April week that was counted). Through a partnership with Nielsen, it regularly publishes late-night ratings.

Ten minutes after each new “SNL” episode concludes, LateNighter hosts a livestream where panelists and readers weigh in on what went right and wrong. A separate Monday roundtable, whose host Jon Schneider boasts of seeing every episode since the show’s 1975 premiere, dissects things in minute detail.

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