What Jon Stewart’s return really means

Renewed attention for late night

In the years since Stewart walked away from The Daily Show, the media landscape has changed and late night has struggled to hold onto viewers. With record numbers of people turning toward streaming or opting to watch clips on social media after a show has aired, advertising revenues for six of the top late-night shows has declined 50% since 2014 and more than 60% from their highs in 2016.

It’s also no secret that viewership for The Daily Show declined since Stewart’s departure amid this new dynamic. While his successor, South African comedian Trevor Noah, had a devoted following, the show didn’t have the same pull: During Stewart’s final season, The Daily Show garnered about 1.3 million viewers, according to the Associated Press. With Noah at the helm, the show averaged about 385,000 viewers.

While Stewart’s 2024 comeback is not likely to change the fractured media landscape, it may bring some renewed attention and buzz to the fading appeal of live late-night television.

“I think it provides a jolt of energy, publicity and interest for late-night TV,” said Kristen Baldwin, a television critic for Entertainment Weekly.

And that jolt of interest may not be a moment too soon for The Daily Show in a competitive media world offering a dizzying array of options from TikTok to Netflix and beyond. Marcus Collins, clinical assistant professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and author of For the Culture, suggests Stewart’s presence may bring some viewers back into the fold of watching live or cable television.

“Stewart’s return will likely be a shot of adrenaline to late-night TV, providing an appointment-based viewing occasion, if only for Monday nights, that linear television needs,” explained Collins. “There was a shrinkage in viewership for The Daily Show after Stewart left, but I imagine many of those people will come back.”

Why will they come back? Because, says Collins, Stewart offers something that’s been sorely lacking in the cultural zeitgeist: a unique brand of “sensible social and political commentary”. And Stewart is bringing this to the table amid a highly charged US presidential election year.

“Stewart provides a voice that, while strong in its convictions, has no problem critiquing both sides of the aisle and driving to the heart of the matter in ways that are both clever and clear,” explained Collins. “That’s super powerful stuff, and it’s a white space in linear late-night TV that’s totally unoccupied.”

If early numbers are any indication, Collins may be onto something. Stewart’s epic return on Monday attracted nearly two million total viewers across simulcasts, Paramount reported.  That’s the show’s most-watched telecast in more than five years.

A more cost-effective late-night model

With high-paid marquee hosts such as Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert, late night is expensive to produce. Estimates peg both Fallon’s and Colbert’s salaries at around $16 million and $15 million respectively, while Stewart was reportedly paid somewhere between $25 million and $30 million. Amid this reality, late-night offerings have shrunk. After James Corden left The Late Late Show with James Corden in 2023, for instance, CBS axed the show rather than find a replacement host.

But Stewart’s one-night-per-week return, which will include a rotating cast of other hosts the remainder of the week, may be an example or prototype for the late-night industry to follow. It offers a less expensive approach other shows could adopt and one that may be more intriguing for viewers.

“I think Stewart’s return will create inspiration for other late-night shows. He’s only on one day a week. That’s an interesting model for other shows,” said Collins. “Imagine if more networks programmed this way. It gives them the flexibility to partner with unbelievable talent without a huge investment from either side.”

In other words, you get both novelty and familiarity at the same time, says Collins, who suggests this approach may signal for other networks some of the creative possibilities available.

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