Go viral or get off late night

How Larry Wilmore's resistance to social media spelled the end for his Comedy Central show

The late-night landscape lost one of its talk show occupants this week. "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore," on Comedy Central, will exit on Thursday, replaced by Chris Hardwick game show "@Midnight" until a permanent replacement is found.

Naturally, the unceremonious cancellation of Larry Wilmore is a reflection -- in large part -- of the waning Nielsen ratings. The talker struggled with the smaller lead-in support from Trevor Noah, who replaced Jon Stewart as host on "The Daily Show." Just 695,000 viewers were tuning in each night, on average, this season, which year-to-year is a loss of 25%, according to Nielsen. Lead-in "The Daily Show" has slipped by 37% (1.87 to 1.17 million). And both shows, perhaps, have suffered from the arrivals of higher-profile late-night hosts Stephen Colbert and James Corden on CBS and Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers on NBC.

The departure of Wilmore could trigger another chapter in the heated debate over diversity in late night; Trevor Noah is now the only remaining late-night talk show host of color. And the timing, just 12-weeks before the Presidential election, is a particular blow given the role these shows have played in the Clinton-Trump fracas. But the departure of "The Late Show with Larry Wilmore" more immediately throws a light on the growing importance of social media in determining a series’ success, above and beyond the traditional ratings.

"We were not getting any traction, not only in terms of linear ratings but also videos being shared or the show being engaged with on social platforms," explained Comedy Central president Kent Alterman on the show’s demise.

In June, Wilmore publicly downplayed the growing importance of viral videos on his show. "It's not designed to have the type of things that Fallon and Corden do, like the karaoke type of thing or lip-sync battle and those types of things because those are such pure comic things," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "Ours is so much more specific and has different structure to it, so it does get shared, but it's just a different tone."

As a rule of thumb, never denounce an ingredient that can be a magnet for the coveted young-adult audience.

Exactly when social buzz took its place alongside the traditional ratings as a metric of TV success is hard to say, but future generations might point to the summer of July 2013 and the original Syfy made-for television movie "Sharknado." By the ratings, "Sharknado" was nothing unusual; just 1.4 million viewers tuned in for its debut telecast. But the hashtag "#Sharknado" became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, with a reported 5,000 tweets per minute that evening, lifting Syfy to its most social telecast ever.

By the time the third telecast of the original "Sharknado" aired two weeks later, the audience rose to 2.1 million viewers, with this second encore telecast breaking the record for the most watched film in Syfy history. Thanks to the power of social media, "Sharknado 2: The Second One," in 2014, became Syfy’s most-watched movie ever, with 3.9 million viewers.

More recently, "Scream Queens" on Fox, a huge miss via the Nielsens, earned a second season renewal purely as a result of social media, with the predominantly younger female skew actively participating in banter about the dramedy across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms. And "The Late Late Show with James Corden," which is actually down, on average, by 8% in total viewers from one year earlier (1.36 to 1.25 million), now has four Emmy nominations under its belt, an Apple Music spinoff series and upcoming spinoff "Drop the Mic" on TBS underway thanks to the very ingredient, viral videos, Larry Wilmore expressed no interest in.

"Social media, unfortunately, cannot guarantee success the old-fashioned way…by the Nielsen ratings," noted Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group’s SVP, director of content strategy. "Not even a hit socially will automatically translate into a mass-sized audience. But what it can do is engage the desired young adult audience, which is of significant importance in how you now measure the success of anything currently on the air."

There is no guarantee, of course, that "The Nightly Show" would have avoided the axe had the host been more conscious of the importance of social media. The ratings, were, after all, lousy. But "Carpool Karaoke" and other social hits are the very reason why Corden is now hailed as a huge success. And that could have also been the case for Larry Wilmore had he kowtowed to the growing value of social media.


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