When David Letterman relinquished his chair as host of The Late Show back on May 20th, 2015, he did more than just retire. Letterman’s farewell to late-night television represented a cultural shift, from the old guard to the new. The landscape of late night is a brand new playing field where the bevvy of new (and not-as-new) hosts not only do battle nightly for TV ratings, but also all day long as reuploads of clips, sketches, and online extras to YouTube are fast becoming the new barometer by which to determine the ultimate leader of late night.

With the debut of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert this week, the wee-hours talk show circuit appears to be set, for the time being, and the battle for ratings primacy is officially a younger person’s game. As he told Rolling Stone on the eve of his retirement, Letterman conceded it was a “weakness of our show” to not be able to figure out YouTube as well as some of his competitors. He added, “I hear about things going viral, and I think, ‘How do you do that?’ I think I’m the blockage in the plumbing.”

With the fall television season still galloping out of the starting gate, ZEFR Insights decided to look at the popularity of late-night television shows using YouTube popularity as a metric. What exactly is the role of “late night” television when the viewing public has become empowered by the sophistication of social media platforms and can view clips (and full episodes) at any time of day? What does the success of, say, Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel say about the health of his broadcast show and vice versa?

One thing is clear: TV ratings now have a complex relationship with how well a show can also attract viewers through all of the available social media platforms that are not TV. Once upon a time, the show was the show, an hour per weeknight that you stayed up for or missed. Now, the phrase “late night” itself is a relic of the past.

Thanks to YouTube, “late night” is 24-hour social media cycle that is global and no longer tethered by a determined broadcast hour. Competition is multi-platform and fever-pitched. Who are the winners so far?


The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

A full three months before the first episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert even aired, the show was already up and running on YouTube. If there had been any doubt as to the fevered anticipation of the beloved Comedy Central star moving over to CBS to occupy the Ed Sullivan Theater and the chair once reserved for David Letterman, these fears were put to rest by the Colbeard.

Yes, with the late-night wars being fiercely fought on multiple media battlegrounds, Stephen Colbert saw the importance of getting new content out to his adoring public as soon as humanly possible. If the growing of a beard in the off-season can garner over 2 million views, this bodes well for Letterman’s legacy property and the future of Stephen Colbert, who has already learned that his YouTube fanbase deserves a studio tour just as much as those who dutifully tuned in to the official 11:35pm broadcast debut.

Soon after the show aired, he posted his first YouTube “bonus clip” featuring GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, and Colbert’s fans were already begging for more.

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The Late Late Show with James Corden

What do you do when you’re the least-known amidst a small, elite crowd of well-known funnymen? You go to where your target audience lives. Trying to get a step ahead of the competition, The Late Late Show with James Corden recently filmed the first-ever late night television broadcast from YouTube Space LA. Featuring interviews with beloved YouTube personalities and opening the broadcast with a popular YouTube staple (a musical number, including artists who got their big break on the platform), Corden takes the idea of a well-run late-night YouTube channel one step further, by being YouTube.

The episode was clearly an attempt to pull some of the enormous viewership from these YouTube stars back to broadcast television while giving Corden credibility among the millennial audience necessary to make his own show a success. As some YouTube stars struggle to make the transition to television, some television stars have struggled to find a way to attract viewers from YouTube. Will booking YouTube stars such as Jenna Marbles and Tyler Oakley and interviewing them on their home turf do the trick? Only time will tell, but Corden appears to be invested in the strategy for now.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

If there is a pioneer in this still-evolving relationship between YouTube and late night television, it is Jimmy Fallon. Perhaps owing to his background in sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, a format perfectly suited for the bite-sized entertainment that thrives on YouTube, Fallon towers over the competition in terms of online footprint. His sketches are practically reverse-engineered, with the broadcast being only a preview of what will be uploaded the following day. Take this game-show sketch featuring Kevin Spacey that aired recently and immediately surpassed the million-view threshold soon after its upload.

Some have argued that his content is a little bit more than just influenced by YouTube creators, but straight-up lifted and without giving due credit. Hence this trial by jury of YouTubers reacting to some of Fallon’s most popular clips.

Whatever the case may be, Fallon and his writing staff have smartly courted his target audience by watching YouTube trends closely and speaking in their language, sometimes literally.

Whether it’s views, engagement, or fan uploads, Fallon has the competition playing catch up. If anyone has the late-night/YouTube relationship figured out, at this point, it appears Fallon has stumbled upon the right balance, with each broadcast outlet feeding the success of the other.


Late Night with Seth Meyers

Another former Saturday Night Live alumn, Seth Meyers has learned a few tricks from Fallon, his nightly lead-in. With his part-time band leader and “curator” Fred Armisen (another SNL alum and current Portlandia star) on the road, Meyers’ popular “FredEx” segment is perfect fodder for the YouTube crowd.

While Meyers struggles to keep pace with the rest of the late night hosts on the platform (he ranks second-to-last overall in most categories) and with Colbert already hot on his heels with only a handful of shows under his belt, Meyers might want to revisit the recipe that made his Jon Snow Dinner Party a viral hit. It is just this type of content that thrives on YouTube, further proof that sketch comedy enjoys a seamless transition to the platform, better than interview segments or even monologues.

Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Fallon’s toughest competitor in terms of YouTube audience is Jimmy Kimmel. With 3 million subscribers and just over 2 billion views, Kimmel has struck a chord with the younger crowd that flocks to YouTube, but doesn’t necessarily tune in to network television on weeknights. Kimmel has been extra aggressive in courting an audience to view his official channel. From online-only segments and extra songs from musical guests, to actual YouTube challenges and social-media inspired skits, Kimmel knows his audience well.

In particular, his “Mean Tweets” segment has become a YouTube staple. A sort of mashup of Twitter and YouTube-ready sketch comedy, the first of (so far) 10 editions is still attracting views (42 million and counting) because who doesn’t want to watch overly celebrated celebrities brought down a peg by a single, short, and not-so-sweet tweet?

The normally astute Kimmel found out the hard way that what YouTube giveth it can also taketh, especially when you poke fun at a passionate online community, such as gaming. By poking fun at the YouTube trend of video games as a spectator sport, social media can roar right back like a lion.

But if Kimmel doesn’t understand exactly why certain trends appear on YouTube (unboxings, for example) he’s happy to indulge his viewers by subjecting Mike Tyson to the trend.

Where Kimmel really shines is in engagement. His YouTube fans are not only legion, they are participatory, heeding the host’s challenge in unexpected ways, such as in this viral hit where Kimmel asked his fans to tell their kids that all the Halloween candy had been eaten. Over 34 million views later, it’s apparent that the two Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) are currently kings of the “late night” YouTube-sphere.



By nearly every metric (views, videos, and engagements), Conan O’Brien’s eponymous late-night program on TNT finishes third behind the two Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel). This is no small feat, considering Jay Leno ducked back into The Tonight Show chair a mere seven months after Conan’s debut, leaving O’Brien essentially adrift without a show or a network. Social media came to the affable redhead’s rescue and the grassroots #TeamCoco Twitter meme was born. This morphed into a brand, eventually landing O’Brien a slot on cable channel TNT where he has flourished for the past five years. TeamCoco, the show’s official YouTube channel, boasts 3 million subscribers and over 1.5 billion views.

The host has recently introduced a new segment where guests reveal what’s in their YouTube watch history, appealing directly to his online fans, including interactive features that bring you directly to the videos being discussed.

Unlike Kimmel, O’Brien was ahead of the video game curve, uploading his own reviews as the “Clueless Gamer,” a perfect recurring bit, undoubtedly aimed right at his online audience.

Sometimes it’s pure luck, as in this viral hit featuring Louis C.K. ranting about cell phones.

Or, it’s O’Brien’s ability to tap into the digital media onslaught we all try to navigate, sometimes literally, as the host takes Dave Franco on Tinder-fueled hunt for dates.

Conan O’Brien, along with his late night peers, are tirelessly in pursuit of engaging and keeping that important demographic that is increasingly choosing social, bite-sized media over traditional broadcast television. As O’Brien’s impressive YouTube numbers can attest, he’s not necessarily found the super-secret ingredient, but he’s close.

Tune in Tomorrow

It wasn’t long ago when the ratings wars for late night primacy included the staid ABC News program Nightline, hosted by Ted Koppel. When any of the reigning comedians of the era were surpassed by the stoic newsman in viewership, that story itself made news as evidence that the popularity of late-night talk programs was in decline. Broadcast ratings are no longer the most important metric as the fractured media landscape requires a multi-tiered strategy, gathering viewers anywhere they can be found. Of course, getting the most people to tune in during showtime is still the ultimate goal, but as this new generation of late-night hosts is proving, success on YouTube directly translates to success on network television (and vice versa).

The science is murky, the numbers are not. Maybe it’s because sketch comedy is perfectly sized for uploading to YouTube, or maybe it’s just 9 to 5 office workers catching up the day after instead of waiting up and avoiding the risk of sleeping on the job. But whatever the exact recipe is, to judge a late-night host’s success based on ratings alone is to miss the bigger picture: The late night war is happening during the day, on YouTube.