Late night television in the United States

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Late night television in the United States is the block of television programming airing after 11:00 p.m. and usually through 2:00 a.m. Traditionally, this type of programming airs after the late local news and is most notable for being the daypart used for a particular genre of programming that falls somewhere between a variety show and a talk show.

Talk shows[edit]

Main article: Late-night talk show

Popular shows within the late night talk show genre include The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and Conan. Famous former hosts include Johnny Carson of The Tonight Show, Arsenio Hall of The Arsenio Hall Show, Tom Snyder of Tomorrow and The Late Late Show, Steve Allen, the father of the late night talk show and founder of Tonight (now known as "The Tonight Show"), Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett, early competitors with Carson, and Jack Paar, the man who followed Steve Allen as host of the Tonight Show and who is responsible for setting the standards for the genre.

Television networks typically produce two late night shows: one taped in New York City and one in Los Angeles. Most are taped late in the afternoon (with the exception of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which finishes taping about an hour before it is broadcast). The fact that this limits accurate coverage of the latest news cycle is sometimes the source of ironic humor or notable delays (for instance, the death of Michael Jackson, a frequent butt of late night jokes, on the afternoon of June 25, 2009 came after all but Kimmel had taped their shows, and as such, Kimmel was the only one to mention it that night).


Until September 2009, the Big Three major networks all began their late night programming at 11:35 p.m. Eastern Time each night, with the exception of Fox, which aired only one day of late night programming (Saturday) starting at 11 p.m. This is a half-hour to one hour after the end of prime time to allow local stations to air newscasts, and most stations (with a few exceptions) do. NBC, however, began following a significantly different model in September 2009, following severe losses of audience for its scripted dramas. Jay Leno, formerly the host of NBC's long-running Tonight Show franchise, had moved his show to the 10 p.m. time slot, ahead of the local newscasts on most stations in a time slot that competes with CBS's and ABC's prime time programming (though Fox affiliates would have cut to post-primetime news or sitcom reruns by this time). Beginning in September 2009, Leno hosted The Jay Leno Show, which was mostly similar to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno with a few adjustments. This made way for Conan O'Brien (formerly the host of Late Night, another long-running NBC late night franchise) to take over The Tonight Show, while Jimmy Fallon has assumed hosting duties for Late Night. The remaining late night programs (Poker After Dark and Last Call with Carson Daly) remained as is, and NBC warned its affiliates not to preempt or delay Leno for local news.[1] After affiliates' fears of significantly lower ratings for local news were in fact realized, NBC announced it would indeed cancel its 10 p.m. experiment and move Leno back to his traditional start time of 11:35.[2]

Of the major networks, the "Big Three" (NBC, ABC, and CBS) program the late night slot on weekdays, but only NBC has late night shows on Saturday. None of the major networks have late night shows on Sunday nights. Until the early 1990s, syndicated late night talk shows were fairly common, due to NBC having the only network shows at the time. The Arsenio Hall Show, which originally ran from 1988 to 1994, was able to pick from CBS, ABC or Fox affiliates (the affiliate makeup of the revival that debuted in 2013 consists of Fox, CW and MyNetworkTV stations). When Late Show with David Letterman and The Chevy Chase Show debuted in 1993, Hall lost a large number of affiliates and ended up leaving the air at the end of the season. There has not been a successful syndicated late night talk show since that time. Fox carried late night programming from 1994 to 2010, but since the cancellation of The Wanda Sykes Show, no longer airs traditional late night programming on any day of the week (a six-week test run of a daily talk show hosted by Craig Kilborn failed to be picked up by the network, and the 90-minute Saturday late night block previously occupied by Sykes and before that by MADtv consisted only of reruns of Fox primetime programming until July 2013, when it added a block of adult-oriented animated series that was subsequently canceled in 2014 due to sports overruns).

Typical format[edit]

These shows often follow the same canonical format:

House bands[edit]

Most shows in this genre have an in-house band that plays musical interludes. Popular late night band leaders include Paul Shaffer, leader of The World's Most Dangerous Band/The CBS Orchestra on Late Night and the Late Show with David Letterman; Max Weinberg, leader of The Max Weinberg 7 on Late Night and The Tonight Show Band on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien; Kevin Eubanks, leader of the The Tonight Show Band and the Primetime Band and The Roots, famous eclectic hip-hop band turned host-band of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Usually the band leader is a major part of the show, and the band leader and host often exchange playful banter during the monologue and comedy segments; the band leader has thus taken over the part of being the host's sidekick, which in the past was played by Ed McMahon and Andy Richter, among others. Of the current late night talk show band leaders who play this role, Paul Shaffer is well known for being a straight man to David Letterman. However, on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Max Weinberg rarely spoke during the show, and his interactions with O'Brien were often short and awkward – a recurring gag on the show (Richter, now the announcer, was O'Brien's primary sidekick on The Tonight Show and has carried on in that role on Conan, whereas new band leader Jimmy Vivino has barely any interaction with O'Brien), and Kevin Eubanks is often the butt of Leno's jokes, particularly regarding drug-related stories. Most notably The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson does not have a house band, and Ferguson has often used that fact as a running gag in his show; Ferguson currently has a robot named Geoff Peterson as his sidekick (The Late Late Show has never had a house band with any of its three hosts, Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn or Craig Ferguson, due to size constraints of the studio and in part because of the show's more low-key original format).


Often, the show's announcer is also a major part of the show. Famous announcers include Gene Rayburn and Hugh Downs (both from the early years of The Tonight Show), Ed McMahon from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Edd Hall and John Melendez from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Bill Wendell and Alan Kalter from Late Show with David Letterman, Steve Higgins from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter from The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and Conan and Don Pardo from Saturday Night Live. These announcers often have significant career accomplishments outside of their particular shows.

Other formats[edit]

The "midnight movie" format is another popular late night format, found particularly among local stations. Buffalo, New York's Off Beat Cinema, Cleveland, Ohio's now-discontinued Big Chuck and Lil' John, Chicago's Svengoolie, the Creature Double Feature, and Elvira's Movie Macabre are some of the better-known late night hosted movie series.

There are also some daytime talk shows, such as The Jerry Springer Show that air in late night due to their adult content. However, these shows typically air in late night involuntarily due to low ratings in their original daytime slots, no room on their station's schedule in an appropriate timeslot, or to fill time that would otherwise be taken up by infomercials or sitcom reruns. Incidentally, the first program to follow the format known today as the "daytime talk show" aired in late night; Les Crane's pioneering interview show aired on ABC in late night for six months from 1964 to 1965.

A brief influx of game shows began to fill the late night airwaves in the mid-to-late-1980s, such as Tom Kennedy's nighttime Price Is Right, The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime, the syndicated version of Sale of the Century, the Bill Rafferty-hosted version of Card Sharks, and High Rollers. These shows were intended for prime time access slots but by that time, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! had already cornered that market, and virtually all of those game shows were cancelled after one season.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the dating game show also filled late night slots in syndication. Two of the earliest successes were Love Connection and Studs. The dating game shows that debuted after 1998 such as Blind Date, The 5th Wheel and Elimidate were known for often pushing the boundaries of sexually suggestive content on broadcast television, and therefore aired in late night on nearly all stations to which they were syndicated, with very few exceptions. Though the genre largely died off from syndication in 2006 (partly due to effects from tighter content restrictions enforced by syndicators after the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show incident), it saw a resurgence in 2011 with the debut of Excused and Who Wants to Date a Comedian?, followed by the 2012 sale of the cable game show Baggage into syndication.

Still other late night programs break the standard format; most notably, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a parody of an evening news program, while The Colbert Report parodies political talk shows. Fox News Channel's Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld uses a roundtable format which has a mix of news discussion mixed with comedy, although roundtable is only used in the descriptive sense; some guests appear on the program via satellite, while a regular on the show appears from another part of the Fox News studios.

ABC's Nightline has long been an exception to the networks' "comedy/variety" formula. Debuting in 1980, Nightline is a nightly half-hour newsmagazine that until 2012 aired immediately after ABC affiliates' local newscasts. It later switched timeslots with Jimmy Kimmel Live in January 2013, pushing Nightline to a later slot.

Cable television[edit]

Two prominent late night-only cable and satellite channels currently air in the United States: Nick at Nite, a collection of primarily reruns of older and some recent network sitcoms that airs over the channel space of Nickelodeon between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. ET. weeknights (the start time is subtracted by one hour on Fridays and two hours on Saturdays, due to programs aimed at pre-teens and young teenagers aired by Nickelodeon on those nights), and Adult Swim, a block of animated and a limited amount of live-action programming targeted toward older teenagers and young adults that shares space on the channel slot of Cartoon Network each night from 9 p.m.-6 a.m. ET.

In the 1980s, it was more common to split one cable television feed into two separate channels: one that aired during the daytime, and the other at night (this was a common method used by cable systems to account for limited channel space within their lineups prior to infrastructure upgrades that gradually increased the amount of channels that could be carried on a single cable system and the advent of digital cable in the 1990s, however in those cases, the providers switched between continuously-running channel feeds between dayparts). Prior to the launch of Nick at Nite, Nickelodeon carried The Movie Channel (from 1979 to 1981), BET (from 1980 to 1981), the Alpha Repertory Television Service (ARTS) (from 1981 to 1984) and ARTS' successor A&E (from 1984 to 1985) over its channel space; each one (except for ARTS, which merged with The Entertainment Channel to form A&E) eventually became its own separate channel.

During the latter half of the 1980s, the Financial News Network carried the sports-oriented SCORE network during the nighttime hours; "FNN-SCORE" (as it was known collectively) was bought out by CNBC in 1991. From April 2002 to December 2007, one of Nickelodeon's digital spinoff channels was, similar to its parent channel, divided so that preschool-oriented programs would air during the day as "Noggin" and teen-oriented programs aired at night as "The N" (these two blocks are now their own separate channels, Nick Jr. and TeenNick, and both broadcast 24 hours a day). TeenNick itself launched a late night block of its own in July 2011, The '90s Are All That, featuring reruns of Nickelodeon programs from the 1990s and is aimed at young adults who watched these programs during that decade as children. Nick Jr. followed suit with the female-oriented block NickMom in October 2012.

Jetix was an action-oriented nighttime block for children that ran on Toon Disney from 2004 to 2009 (the two entities have since been discontinued, with the channel having since relaunched as Disney XD); similarly from its 1983 debut until 1997, Disney XD parent Disney Channel had a nighttime program block featuring family-friendly feature films, classic movies and music specials aimed at adults known as "Disney Nighttime", when it was replaced by Vault Disney, which offered classic Disney series and films (since the latter block ended in 2002, Disney Channel's late night programming has featured reruns of the network's preteen-skewing original series, occasional films and programs aimed at preschoolers; as such, Disney is the largest American family-oriented cable channel whose nighttime programming is not aimed at an older audience). The Disney Junior channel features some archival programming from the 1990s during the overnight hours.

Late night talk shows, once exclusive to network television, have begun to be included on cable channels as well in recent years due in part to the success of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; other late night cable talk shows such as Conan, Totally Biased, The Colbert Report and Chelsea Lately have also proven successful; however, late night talk/variety programs on cable have a slight advantage over their broadcast counterparts as most of them typically air at 11 p.m. ET, at the same time that most local broadcast stations air their late evening newscasts and 35 minutes before the major networks begin their late night network programming. These shows also have the advantage of not being subject to Federal Communications Commission guidelines, though internal network standards generally result in these shows not being much more ribald than their network counterparts.

Premium channels often air softcore pornographic feature films and series during the late night hours (in addition to mainstream programs), containing simulated sexual intercourse and nudity that would likely not air during the daytime hours; Cinemax is the most notable pay service to carry programming of that genre, though most of the Showtime Networks (including Showtime and The Movie Channel) and HBO's multiplex channel HBO Zone have also carried (either presently or in the past) adult films or series; pay services operating similar to the pay-per-view model that feature pornographic content also exist such as Playboy TV and the more hardcore-formatted Spice Networks, these channels are typically sold by cable and satellite providers as nighttime-only packages despite typically operating on a continuously-running 24-hour schedule. Premium channels also run older, lower-profile or obscure feature films (that either received home video, DVD or theatrical release, and often featuring a release lag of up to 30 years) during the overnight hours; more recent films, specials and reruns of original series are sometimes interspersed with these types of films.

Most American cable channels often air either blocks of infomercials or time-shifted replays of prime time programming during late night time periods, while only a handful of basic cable channels (such as TNT, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite and ESPN) air a round-the-clock schedule featuring entertainment programming during the overnight hours.


  1. ^ Heslam, Jessica (April 13, 2009). "Channel 7 to broadcast Jay Leno show this fall". Boston Herald. Retrieved April 13, 2009. 
  2. ^ "Jay Leno Heading Back To Late Night, Conan O’Brien Weighing Options". 2010-01-08. Retrieved 2012-10-25. 

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