The goal is to build an audience that attracts local and national advertisers throughout an entire evening of television programs.
Network programmers assemble a portfolio of programs that is designed to minimize risk, the study concludes. Risk can be measured by the variation in audience size from one program to the next.
Efforts to minimize risk are particularly apparent when new programs are created. Programmers try to select new programs that will attract audiences that are similar in size to the audiences for the network's existing programs, the study says.
It’s not surprising that neither network wants to experiment with a host who doesn’t fit the established conventions for the 11.30 p.m. timeslot. Programmers at both networks surely recall how audience ratings at NBC declined in 2010 when it briefly replaced Jay Leno with Conan O’Brien. Audiences for local television newscasts are influenced by the late night shows that follow those newscasts. So programmers must also try to avoid changes that could cause declines in the audience for local news, which is a critical source of advertising revenue at television stations throughout the U.S. Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert seem like safe choices that will help the networks avoid a loss of audience. Both replacements combine an appeal to younger audiences with a sensibility that seems unlikely to alienate older viewers. (Objections to Colbert made by politically conservative commentators will fade into irrelevance if, as expected, Colbert drops his persona as a political satirist when he arrives at CBS.) But I wonder how long these safe programming choices will continue to work for late night television. This has nothing to do with reaching audiences who would rather watch these programs on the Internet. Both replacement hosts and both networks are adept at producing material for the Internet. Meanwhile, the demographics of the country are rapidly and inevitably changing. States like California, where the combined minority population outnumbers the white population, represent the future. Will Fallon and Colbert have the same long-term audience appeal that their predecessors enjoyed? Or will changing audience preferences undermine the safe choices made by network programmers?