During his stint on CBS' "The Late Late Show," Craig Ferguson has been known to joke that only a handful of people are watching, and that the folks from his network are not among them. Yet many TV executives are starting to give the wee hours of the morn another look.
In October, Comedy Central launched the Chris Hardwick-hosted program "@Midnight," which has been picked up for 2014 to run on the same production schedule as the net's popular "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report," extending its latenight block past the witching hour. TBS has been testing a new midnight talkshow featuring Pete Holmes, following Conan O'Brien.
NBCUniversal's USA Network, too, has been exploring the time period, according to people familiar with the situation, though the cabler has no imminent plans, and it remains unclear whether its show would air before or after the clock strikes midnight.
For certain networks that cater to younger crowds, particularly men, primetime may come later than the norm. Twentysomething males are light television viewers when compared with those who are 35-plus, said Sam Armando, senior VP and director of strategic intelligence at media-research agency SMGx. "It's more of a job to track them down," he added.
One place where these dudes abide? The overnight hours. To be sure, Adult Swim has capitalized on that phenomenon for years. Fox recently launched a raunchy late-Saturday animation set, but such stuff isn't for everyone. A more traditional talkshow that's aimed at the younger demo may be more palatable to a greater range of advertisers.
Comedy Central has captured more of that crowd in recent weeks. During its four-week test run (Oct. 21-Nov. 17), "@Midnight" attracted an average audience of 717,000, including 261,000 men between the ages of 18 and 34, and 106,000 between 18 and 24, according to Nielsen data. Only "Daily Show" and "Colbert" managed to get more eyeballs in those demographics.
The cable moves come at an interesting time. Two personalities on the broadcast side of the dial who skew younger -- Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel -- once held sway after midnight (Fallon's entire "Late Night" hour and 30 minutes of Kimmel's program). But ABC has set Kimmel at 11:35, where Fallon will join him next year.
Meanwhile, the biggest-spending overnight advertisers have increased their outlay on the daypart. In the first half of 2013, Geico, AT&T, State Farm, Progressive and McDonald's spent around $138.2 million on programming that aired between midnight and 5 a.m., according to Kantar Media, a 35% increase over the nearly $101.9 million they spent in the year-earlier period.
At Comedy Central, executives felt they could get more ad dollars with original content than they could with reruns of "Colbert" and "Daily," said Kent Alterman, president of content development and original programming at the Viacom cabler. "Reruns mean less and less as people consume content in different ways," he said.
Over at TBS, the performance of "Pete Holmes" among younger viewers has been less robust than that of its peers, according to Nielsen. The show's future is still being discussed, said Michael Wright, prexy and head of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM, who added, "I think that people sampling the show are getting something really smart, really contemporary."
Still, there's no getting away from the fact that the increasing shift toward programming latenight has to do with a change in audience viewing habits. Just as local stations and cable news networks have begun to program 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. more readily to accommodate a growing segment of people getting up earlier than in years past, networks with younger viewers want to reach those who are staying up later.
In early 2014, Alterman noted, Comedy Central will run a new 12:30 a.m. program featuring popular comic Dave Attell and other standups in an "uncensored" format. And, the exec warned, there will be rough language. "I think we're living in a world where advertisers are, more and more, realizing that if they want to reach a young male audience, there is certain content that a young male audience responds to," he said.
How salty is too salty for major brands?
Alterman demurred: "We'll see how this works."