LOS ANGELES (AP) — The role of female talk show hosts in late-night TV broadcast network history, all 50-plus years of it, can be summed up in two words: Joan Rivers. It takes just another two — Arsenio Hall — to do the same for minorities.
There’s no indication that’s going to change in the latest round of musical chairs involving “Tonight” and “Late Night.” All the NBC, ABC and CBS showcase jobs at 11:30 p.m. Eastern and later appear likely to remain securely in white men’s hands.
Jay Leno is handing off to Jimmy Fallon, with speculation tagging Seth Meyers as his likely successor. Meanwhile, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and Carson Daly are sitting pretty, without the faintest drumbeat of a pair of advancing high heels to signal a threat.
There have been alternatives bandied about — Chelsea Handler, black comedian-writer Aisha Tyler — but no hints they or others are getting traction.
“In real life it seems to me that women have definitely shown themselves to be able to carry on a conversation,” said Merrill Markoe, the Emmy Award-winning writer who helped David Letterman create “Late Night” at NBC. “Women have exhibited an interest in talking for centuries. I’m not sure how it is that no one has seemed to notice.”
NBC did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. But if belles du jour Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can excel at TV sitcoms and movies and teach Ricky Gervais a thing or two (or three) about hosting the Golden Globes, could they be queens of the night with their own talk shows? Or maybe a Hispanic or Asian-American man could have a turn. We may miss out on a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” clip of a heavyset woman lifting her T-shirt, and the host then warning us, “I need to take a break. I’m going to throw up,” but we might get other thrills.
Women and minorities have conquered other traditionally white male-dominated arenas, on and off TV — think anchorwoman Diane Sawyer, President Barack Obama — but in late-night even daring cable is content with the homogenized likes of Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, with such occasional dashes as E!’s Handler, BET’s Mo’Nique and TBS’ now-gone George Lopez thrown in.
Rivers, who became host of Fox’s “The Late Show” in 1986 after filling in as the sole regular guest host on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight,” calls the lack of female hosts “beyond” frustrating.
Blame the broadcast industry’s resistance toward change and the risk of failure, she said: “Everybody is running so scared, and has always run scared.”
And executives can find reasons, or excuses, for keeping the status quo.
“They had surveys at NBC, and the surveys were that women would rather watch a man at night, which is what they’re always throwing up in your face,” Rivers said.
That’s an argument that’s still made, privately, in the industry: Women want to hear their pre-bedtime monologue jokes from a man, while Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Katie Couric are welcome in daytime.
It’s true that women make up a majority of the audience for every network late-night show. ABC’s Kimmel, for instance, is averaging 1.4 million female viewers and 770,000 male viewers this season, while Leno is watched by 1.9 million women and 1.5 million men, according to Nielsen Co. ratings.
But “Chelsea Lately” casts doubt on the notion of women snubbing women. Of Handler’s 650,000 viewers, about 65 percent are female — a higher percentage of women than any male network host except Kimmel, who’s about even with that number.
While networks also have to worry about drawing male viewers, especially the advertiser-coveted younger ones, the hard truth is that battle is being lost to edgier cable hosts — Stewart, Colbert and O’Brien all have majority-male audiences — and to the video games and online distractions that consume their attention.
The networks have other reasons to reconsider their white-guys-only strategy, according to an analysis of Nielsen data: They are losing out on minority viewers, Hispanics in particular.
Of the total 3.44 million viewers averaged by “Tonight” for the season through March 24, there were 188,000 Hispanics. That’s about 5 percent of the total audience, compared to the nearly 17 percent Latino slice of the U.S. population.
The other late-night shows show similar degrees of disconnect with Hispanics, although some can boast healthy black viewership.
“Guess what? America’s becoming more diverse,” said Darnell Montez Hunt, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor who studies race and media. Late-night shows “could grow a larger and diverse audience by making different choices behind the camera and in front of the camera.”
That means, in part, casting a wider net for young comedians and giving them a chance to develop into big league material, as Fallon was able to do when he moved from “Saturday Night Live” to “Late Night.”
There are plenty of comers to choose from, said Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada, who sees a parade of talented women and minorities on stage as his comedy clubs in the Los Angeles area and Chicago.
“I could give your three or four names who could be the best host,” he said. “Tony Rock, the brother of Chris Rock, would be a fantastic guy to do a talk show.”
TBS turned to an established comic in 2010 when it launched “The George Lopez Show.” But when Lopez was bumped back an hour to midnight to make way for O’Brien’s post-”Tonight” effort, ratings fell and Lopez got a pink slip. He had averaged 910,000 viewers at 11 p.m. Eastern; so far this season, O’Brien is averaging just under 600,000 — and just earned a renewal through 2015.
Lopez is canceled, Wanda Sykes loses her low-rated Saturday night Fox show, and it gives networks an out, said UCLA’s Hunt: “They’ll point to the example of the cautionary tale as to why diversity is not a good thing for the bottom line.”
But Garth Ancier saw firsthand the value of going against the grain in his tenure as Fox’s first entertainment programming chief.
While Rivers’ Fox stint was relatively brief — the network cited low viewership, she blames a business clash — it helped give a boost to Hall, one of the guest hosts who succeeded her, and proved there was an audience appetite for something new.
“Arsenio was getting ratings almost immediately because there was no one like him on late night,” recalled Ancier. Hall made such a splash that, although Fox failed to snap him up, he struck a syndication deal and was on the air from 1989-94.
Ancier, who later moved over to the WB that launched in 1995 (and which later merged with UPN to form the CW), tried to go the non-traditional route again by proposing a Rosie O’Donnell talk show.
“We couldn’t get enough enthusiasm from affiliates,” he said.
Network affiliate stations are indeed part of late-night’s resistance to change, said Christine Becker, an associate professor at Notre Dame University who writes the News For TV Majors blog.
Since lucrative local newscasts flow into talk shows, there’s an “inherent fear” at networks that stations or sponsors will be alienated by unfamiliar fare, Becker said. Keeping viewers from flipping also conveniently delivers them back to the same channel the next morning.
But at least some local station executives say they are ready to switch it up.
“To me, it’s all about popularity, if it’s a man or a woman or whatever,” said John O’Brien, vice president and general manager of NBC affiliate WNDU in South Bend, Ind. “If it’s an individual that’s entertaining in a late-night time slot and viewers like them, that’s what we want.”
“I’d like to see a female in there. Count me in,” said Lisa Howfield, vice president and general manager of the network affiliate KVBC in Las Vegas.
It will happen, said Rivers, 79, who revisits her tumultuous talk-show career on this weekend’s episode of her WE TV series, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”
“The right women in front of the camera will be just fine. It was fine when I did it, and it will be fine again,” she said.
As for the minority presence in late-night, that’s getting a boost this September with Hall’s return. Is NBC, CBS, ABC or Fox to be the broadcast network home to “The Arsenio Hall Show”? None of the above. It’s syndicated.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org and on Twitter (at)lynnelber.