Talk Shows Are an Endangered Species. To Survive, They Must Evolve

9 minute read

Jennifer Hudson knows how to work a crowd. When her syndicated talk show premiered on Fox on Monday, Sept. 12—which also happened to be Hudson’s 41st birthday—she bounded onto the set in head-to-toe hot pink: dress, tights, boots, nails, makeup. Before taking her place on the pillowy couch at center stage, already breathless and on the verge of tears, the EGOT winner sang, danced, and hugged woman after starstruck woman in the audience. “When you see me, you’re gonna see my heart,” she pledged in an opening monologue. By the time the hour was out, she’d given everyone in the crowd a vacation to Mexico, surprised an aspiring singer with the chance to perform on national TV, and, in a booking that guaranteed headlines, had her first encounter with Simon Cowell in the 18 years since he underestimated her on American Idol.

Even if Hudson and Cowell’s mutual graciousness came off as a bit artificial, it’s hard to imagine a more dynamic debut from a more distinguished or charismatic host. A decade ago, that combination of energy and star power might have guaranteed The Jennifer Hudson Show a lengthy run. But in 2022, despite relatively strong initial ratings, its success is no foregone conclusion. (Just look at The Drew Barrymore Show, whose very famous, very likable host has struggled with poor ratings and other setbacks.) At this transitional moment for talk shows of all kinds, on every platform, as audiences shrink and big names sign off, the future of the format itself is uncertain. As righteous as it feels to champion a legacy genre perfected by Johnny Carson and Oprah, it might be time to admit that the talk show as we know it is obsolete.

Although the TV business as a whole no longer shuts down between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the sphere of syndicated talk still revolves around an old-school broadcast schedule. As such, September brings a handful of chat-show premieres. Sherri Shepherd, the 30 Rock actor and former co-host of The View, unveiled Sherri on the same day Hudson’s first episode dropped. Karamo, as in Queer Eye star Karamo Brown, followed on Sept. 19.

The influx of new faces—or, more accurately, familiar faces headlining new series—reflects last season’s exodus of daytime stalwarts including Ellen DeGeneres, Wendy Williams, Dr. Oz, Maury Povich, and The Real. (Not all of these series were axed by execs; Oz is campaigning for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, while DeGeneres opted not to renew her contract amid reports of a hostile work environment at The Ellen DeGeneres Show.) Meanwhile, the cancellation of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, James Corden’s impending departure from The Late Late Show, and the implosion of Showtime’s beloved Desus & Mero suggest big changes to come in late night.

Not that the shift has been especially sudden. By 2015, the Hollywood Reporter was dating the decline of “the single-host talk show” to four years earlier, when Oprah wrapped her syndicated standard bearer, and placing the blame on such novel, unmediated outlets for access to celebs as social media and TMZ. But both daytime and late-night talk have suffered precipitous ratings drops since then, as the explosion of streaming has reverberated through the linear-TV landscape. (While Nielsen numbers no longer tell the whole story of any series’ reach—plenty of people watch talk shows via YouTube, social media clips, and streaming platforms—they remain a crucial measure of financial viability.) In an exit interview this spring, DeGeneres admitted that the present didn’t seem like a great moment to enter the “fractured environment” of daytime.

Streaming might be the biggest single threat to the future of the talk show. It does, after all, provide an endless, on-demand supply of new and old TV in every genre, which is a whole lot harder to compete with than the reruns, game shows, soaps, and infomercials that linear networks program during the workday and after 11:30 p.m. Comedy and music fans who once tuned in to late night for the performances can now find dozens of standup specials and concert films on most streaming platforms. Never an ideal distribution model for timely content, streaming has also struggled to develop successful talk shows of its own; R.I.P. Chelsea, The Break with Michelle Wolfe, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, and The Joel McHale Show on Netflix alone. Offered the opportunity to engage with the salient political and cultural issues of the day, it seems that most subscribers would prefer to escape into Stranger Things or Selling Sunset.

Yet streaming is far from the only factor contributing to the talk show’s decline. The hyper-partisan Trump era dealt a final death blow to the politically neutral “general audience” of generations past. (NBC’s abortive attempt to make the reactionary Fox News alum Megyn Kelly palatable to daytime viewers is one example of the categorical chaos this transition unleashed.) Among the loyal fans who remained, many changed their media diets, sometimes for good, during talk shows’ extended pandemic hiatuses of 2020. At the same time, younger adults—traditionally a key demographic for late night—have found themselves alienated by the medium’s reliance on rehashing the same news they already spend all day reading about on social media, as well as broadcast lineups that currently feature three straight, white hosts named James but none who are women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community.

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Also in the past decade, podcasts have become a major force in entertainment—and a huge subset of the most popular ones in the world, from Call Her Daddy to WTF with Marc Maron, are audio-only talk shows optimized for listening whenever, wherever. Joe Rogan, who remains, for better or worse, the most-listened-to podcaster in the U.S., attracts an audience of about 11 million per episode. Compare that to daytime’s most-watched chat show, The View, which averaged around 2.4 million during the 2021-22 season, and it’s no wonder that iconic hosts from Conan O’Brien to Martha Stewart have refocused their energies on podcasts.

Add it all up, and talk shows start to look like a casualty of organic changes in multiple industries and demographics, rather than the victims of some sudden extinction event. That doesn’t mean they’re all doomed to fail, though many already have and more are bound to follow; it means that the format needs to evolve in order to survive. In that respect, broadcast networks and streaming services in particular have much to learn from the few shows that do seem to be thriving. Many, like John Oliver’s Emmy-dominating Last Week Tonight, air just once a week—because who can still afford to budget five precious weekly viewing hours to a single program? Netflix’s only long-running talk show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman, has an A-list host and guests, and produces fewer than 10 episodes per season.

Late night has also, unfortunately, found viewers by echoing the Internet’s sneering political rhetoric. Bill Maher, who now directs more fury at the “woke” left than the far right, becomes a trending topic with each new episode. Fox News’ Gutfeld!, a conservative answer to network hosts’ allegedly liberal slant, sometimes trounces broadcast competitors like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon in the ratings. In the gentler daytime realm—where even the second-most-watched talk show, Dr. Phil, has been laying off staffThe View has maintained its predominance by mirroring the public’s political fragmentation instead of politely ignoring it.

For its part, the crucial young-adult demo has fueled the modest successes of cable and streaming late-night titles whose structures are looser and voices more absurdist than their broadcast predecessors. The hosts of these shows—Showtime’s Ziwe, Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show, Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show—also tend to break the Jimmy/James/John mold, whose outdatedness might well be reflected in the dramatic dropoff in ratings for Stewart’s Apple TV+ comeback, The Problem with Jon Stewart. (Desus & Mero would also presumably have continued past its fourth season if the hosts hadn’t had a very public falling out.)

Daytime’s class of 2022 reflects a similar investment in diversity—and particularly in Black hosts, who remain underrepresented despite such high-profile exceptions as Oprah, Tamron Hall, and Whoopi Goldberg. In a counterpoint to Goldberg’s often-heated View, Hudson and fellow Idol alum Kelly Clarkson are leaning into music and audience interaction. Barrymore’s new season heralds a change in format that will give local affiliates the option to run the full hour-long show or one standalone half-hour. But it’s hard to believe that these largely cosmetic adjustments will solve an elemental problem. Daytime talk has always been a less elastic, experimental arena than late night, whose traditional audience is students and stoners. If it can’t remake itself in the image of Hudson or anyone else, then I am telling you, it might be going.

Correction, Sept. 21

The original version of this story misstated the title of a Fox News late-night show. It is Gutfeld!, not Gutfield!

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