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Late-night shows should be viewed with skepticism

Late-night shows should be viewed with skepticism

Late-night shows should be viewed with skepticism
March 23
08:00 2022

When was the last time you sat down and watched a late-night show? Who was the host? Was it one of the “Jimmys” or maybe Colbert, Conan, Corden, Meyers, or some other white man in a suit? Did it follow the structure of “monologue, to oddity segment, to commercial, to interview, to cutaway, to commercial, to interview, to performing guest, to commercial, to interview, to closer” format?

The same structure of Johnny Carson’s Feb. 15, 1973 episode?

Before cable and the internet, watching television was like turning on a sink with a light switch. You’d flip the switch and expect a constant stream of water, but you’d have to flip the switch a few times to get the temperature you’re looking for. Television was one-dimensional, a constant stream of video that you had no input or meaningful relationship with.

All you could do was flip through the channels until you landed on something you were interested in. The only guide you had was a subscription to a physical magazine that listed the broadcast schedule of every station for the week.

There was no concept of algorithms generating personalized media or methods to create content catered to the consumer through an analysis of their viewing habits. However, broadcasting companies have always green-lit shows on a very important criterion: the potential to appeal to a wide enough audience to make the advertisers happy.  

When you pull the veil back, late-night shows are long commercials. When was the last time you watched an interview where a guest wasn’t promoting an upcoming book they’ve written, or a show or movie that they’re starring in? It all comes down to the illusion of parasocial relationships, maintained by playful banter that these celebrities are our friends, when the reality is a salesman and a product — and it’s important to remember that reality.

Since the mid-’50s, the late-night talk show format has been an incredibly popular time slot that has been making audiences laugh before bed for several decades. When Steve Allen hosted the first episode of “The Tonight Show” on Sep. 27, 1954, the world witnessed the format we’ve come to know today. Allen brought variety to the talk show format by cutting the lines between the stage and the viewer by consistently involving audience members and taking cameras onto the street, interviewing regular people he’d cross paths with. 

Although Allen brought the concept to life, Johnny Carson is largely credited for being the host to set the bar for the late-night circuit through his small town charm and quick wit. As an interviewer, Carson was a master in his craft, breaking the barrier of stardom to reveal celebrities’ real personalities without the Hollywood glow. Carson was to the late show circuit as Fred Rogers was to children’s television: a friendly face you’d trust despite never having any personal interaction. 

And if a celebrity were friends with Carson (or at the very least, seemed to be) they’d be a friend of yours too, right?

This is a phenomenon called a “parasocial relationship“— a single-sided friendship, an idealized vision of personal emotional connections with a person of grandeur and fame. You invest your time and interest in getting to learn everything about their personal life without their knowledge of your existence. But why does that matter?

Let’s say you’re in a store, looking for new shampoo. If a person you’ve never met recommends a brand of shampoo you don’t use, you’re probably not going to take a stranger’s shampoo recommendation. You’d be skeptical and then forget about it. However, if a trusted friend recommends that same brand to you, you’re going to take their word, consider it and maybe even buy it. Regardless of if you purchase that brand of shampoo or not, you’re going to associate that brand with that friend every time you see it. 

Now, let’s say you’re watching Jimmy Fallon interview Paris Hilton, and they start talking about non-fungible tokens and how they’re both “part of the same community,” as two NFT owners. 

Do you want to be a part of that community with Fallon and Hilton?

What if Fallon announces Will Ferrell, and Ryan Reynolds walks out in his place as an unexpected and definitely unscripted surprise, delivering a fast-paced interview while promoting a movie they did together and Ferrell’s new show, only available on AppleTV+? 

Doesn’t that funny interview make you want to go see that new movie and subscribe to AppleTV+?

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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Travis Norton

Travis Norton

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