Daytime TV talk shows are everyone’s favorite background sound. Relatively easy to produce, they provide a constant stream of comforting noise that can certainly fill an empty space. And beyond just providing a background for everyday life, there are plenty of programs that host interesting guests, discuss the latest in current events, and screen entertaining games and challenge competitions.
Yet recent events, which we’ll get into later, have thrown the format and the relevance of the talk show into question. Audience desires are changing, and TV talk show formats are struggling to keep up. Popular attitudes towards talk show hosts and their behavior are also shifting, as standards about what is or is not considered acceptable continue to adjust. While people will always need some form of entertainment that will help them tune out and relax, there are plenty of other entertainment options that fit that bill today.
Therefore, the talk show seems to be at a crossroads, if not one that is immediately apparent. While we cannot be certain of the future until it reaches us, we can examine the state of talk shows today and how they might evolve in the coming years.
The talk show has been around for a long time in one form or another. It started with Joe Franklin’s talk show that started in 1951. Soon after in 1954, The Tonight Show on NBC was the first talk show that is still running today. This makes it the longest-running talk show of any format (and The Tonight Show changed formats a few times). And the simple premise of guests and monologues came to be.
Of course, they did not come out of a vacuum. Radio existed far before this. The talk format for radio was longstanding and most of the ideas for the talk show came from radio and were adapted. Radio personalities and hosts made up some of the first talk show hosts and provided a basis to work from.
Over the decades, there have been additional formats, timeslots, and options. Talk shows replaced other forms and formats of the content of the time. We saw additional late-night talk shows and their evolution into their comedy focus over the decades, morning shows taking root on major network and news channels, and the tabloid talk show (not as popular as it was in the 90s). The celebrity interview show became popular as well, especially over the past few decades, and is effectively the norm for a talk show.
However, the peak of talk shows might have been Oprah, rightfully called the queen of daytime TV for as long as she had a show on the air and is still called that to this day. Many “lifestyle” shows arose in her show’s wake. Some of these continue to this day and most of them cater to a female audience who would be at home in the afternoon. It also showcased the power of the popular talk show, with things simply mentioned becoming bestsellers. The trend of using the platform to advertise has always been a part of talk shows and likely will never cease.
Coinciding with this were talk shows arising all over the rest of the world in every language and every flavor. Some were more politically focused and others are driven by cultural topics. Some have been on for decades with no competition, and others are only on the air for a year or two. It is an environment of both constant experimentation and staunch creative conservatism.
Recent years have had us ask the questions of what a talk show even is, to begin with, and does it need to be on television. New media taking the world by storm has granted people access to a multitude of content in the general format, and there is also an expanding world of podcasting and specialty content that means more focused talk shows about every specific topic might be the norm in addition to a general network show.
There is so much more to this topic, but as opposed to getting a simple version from us we recommend you read deeper on the subject. Specifically, look up the history of shows that interest you the most.
But here we are today, with plenty of talk shows, yet a changing undercurrent that could sweep most of them away and change how we look at television overall. Plenty of people who previously watched talk shows are finding themselves with a different schedule, and more people still want to watch their favorite shows (including talk shows) on their own time. The changing times can make people less loyal to a talk show, and shows need to keep up in their own ways.
Sometimes more specific things occur. One of the most notable events for daytime talk was the news that Ellen DeGeneres was going to be ending her show after about 19 years on the air. Hollywood is in a bit of a stir considering the allegations of workplace abuse surrounding the program and DeGeneres herself, and while she states her ending of the show is mostly about her trying new creative fields and ventures, it also cannot be denied that ratings have been down and many stories persist about her. A talk show is as much about the host as anything else (the show was named after her, after all), and a poor reputation will not go too far with audiences.
Furthermore, in an increasingly divided country along several lines, many talk shows cannot help but get drawn along political or cultural lines, leaving hosts and producers walking tightropes on top of all of the other controversies in Hollywood. More on this topic later, but waters grow hotter and people’s tolerance is lowering for disagreement. Talk shows often feel the need to remain light, and this can create a disconnect with how many people are feeling.
We think that there will be plenty of talk shows and much success moving forward, but things will not be able to continue as they always have.
Yet all things considered, how are talk shows, both daytime, and late-night, doing today or this year? Here are a few key points:
However, if you look at the overall ratings, it’s not as though talk shows dominate all people watch. See, for example, what people were watching the week of January 3-7:
Some talk shows are doing better than others, but steady ratings or steadily growing ratings is probably the best sign. A super-famous of enticing guests might boost ratings for one show or two, but constant success is what is needed to survive and thrive. What marks success is if a show manages to keep viewers after a big event, and normal viewership increases even on days without a huge celebrity or a lot of marketing. Talk shows need to sustain themselves in the long run, after all.
Compared to before and the cultural dominance of some shows these numbers might not seem too impressive. However, in most cases, this is not too bad considering the amount of programming available. While there are more viewers and TVs today than there were 50 years ago, there were also far fewer options. The talk shows of the last generation did not have nearly as much competition, either within the format or outside of it. You got what you got and that was that.
While there are causes for concern for talk shows, we think they are doing just fine, at least for the moment.
While talk shows in some ways live for drama, it feels that more and more often one talk show or another is embroiled in a controversy or two. Sometimes a joke on a late-night show might go a bit too far. Sometimes a guest might say something controversial and the show does not respond appropriately. Sometimes there is a gaffe or major technical failure. Everything can receive backlash. More personal content often gets attacked for political viewpoints or not living up to the unreachable ideals of the audience. Pleasing millions of people isn’t easy.
On the other side of the coin, however, the controversy or more heated political discourse might draw an audience. Some have developed a following for their cutting humor towards one side or another. Some late-night hosts found a resurgence after criticizing President Donald Trump during his time in office. There is still a line to walk and plenty of criticism and abuse to fend off, but the audience for some of these shows is stable. In fact, some shows have embraced their new identity.
To what degree this trend will continue we are not certain, but we are certain there will be a split, with some shows looking to stir up more trouble and others looking to do their usual thing and focus on non-controversial topics. After all, there is a talk show for just about every person of every background and interest now. On streaming services where audiences are more self-selected, we expect that talk-format shows will be even more focused on specific groups and concerns, and everyone else will be secondary.
The pandemic changed everything when it came to TV, as it did life in general. Due to restrictions and precautions to avoid spreading the virus, many television productions outright shut down for some time, and most afterward made sure that most work was done remotely. This resulted in either reduced production schedules, a lot of changes on the part of the shows (many late-night shows hosted from a reduced set or even an improvised one in their home), or other unexpected changes. Once things were alright enough for productions but not crowds, many talk shows changed to not having an audience. This created a striking difference for audiences. Whether it was a lifestyle-type show or a talk show that regularly used audience participation, all had to adapt.
The pandemic was not entirely bad for TV, streaming, or talk shows. With not much else to do, many people tuned into new talk shows for the first time, with new schedules and more time on their hands than they have ever had before. If shows could deal with the logistical challenges of getting a show safely to air, they had a chance to gain some new fans. And the logistics themselves are fascinating in and of themselves. Remote teams were used remote teams for split-second decision-making and production. Live television, if a show is live, is an immense undertaking. Therefore, creating live television of any sort over vast distances is a monumental achievement.
Now, as the pandemic winds down (at least in terms of lockdowns and changes to daily life), we will have to see whether the numbers stay up. Will many workers remain remote and will productions take advantage of a potentially wider pool of talent? What processes and standards will remain? These are questions that concern the back end of things, but they heavily affect the ultimate quality of the talk shows people watch every day.
Yet as hosts and shows leave, more will enter. While we are not exactly sure about what will replace Ellen permanently, for example, we can be assured that there will be another talk show. Kelly Clarkson recently launched a talk show to continue positive results. Drew Barrymore also has a show that is doing quite well. As long as there are new shows (many of which you will not hear about), there will be opportunities for growth and breaking out within the format.
There may also be a greater variety of talk shows that only run a few times a week, perhaps once a week with more esteemed guests or focused content, or a longer format. While not strictly a talk show (more talk show adjacent), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver proved some of the potential success of this model, as did many other shows before it.
Still, combining the new with the old will be key, as we expect people will want to watch the same types of things over time. Formats will mostly remain the same, similar topics will be discussed, and people will want to see their favorite celebrities telling amusing stories.
Of all the parties involved, we certainly cannot forget the networks, who hold the budget in their hands and may often dictate content on talk shows, whether to promote another show or initiative they are doing or to (more rarely) forward an agenda. They are the ones who determine the value of talk shows, and therefore will be mostly the ones to determine the future of the format and whether it has a place on television going forward.
Networks also must look at what businesses want and what advertisers are looking for and willing to pay for ad time. Talk shows are less likely to talk poorly about quite a few brands, if you take notice, and sponsored segments are common enough to become a staple of the format. Naturally, this is a part of most television in one form or another, though advertisements may come in more frequently during shows as more people can and will skip commercials. It’s a lot of money to run a talk or late-night show, and there’s the data to prove it.
Cable networks, while generally not looking for as big numbers, also do not always have the budget to spend on the biggest personalities or allow for an hour-long show every day or night. They need to get a bit more creative with it or be willing to cut expenses in places. What they will do remains unseen, and it is possible their presence in the talk show market will shrink over time.
TV is not always on TV anymore. Over the past decade, people have turned to streaming platforms for their content. Often this is for good reason: people like the convenience available to them and there are quite a few exclusive shows to watch.
However, there is a certain type of content network and cable television has always had a stronghold on compared to streaming options. These are sports, news programming, and talk shows (either late night or daytime). While there have been a few attempts, the framework simply rests better with a traditional television model. They are there four to five days a week while providing access to big-name celebrities and guests.
There is also the matter of changing tastes and platforms in general, far beyond what TV has had in the past. Many people prefer to listen to YouTube videos, podcasts of their choice, and streams on Twitch as opposed to the regular talk show of their choice. The content is on-demand, people can interact more with the show, and there is a greater sense of familiarity than the distance of a polished set and heavily organized format.
While the production values might not always be sky-high, people just listening will not care and the people watching are rarely offended either. And while chatrooms for major channels or online celebrities do not provide for any meaningful conversation whatsoever, is it more than can be said for passively staring at a screen. For better or worse, people want more direct access to their entertainment and entertainers.
The problem with this type of content for streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu is that streaming platforms generally want things that are evergreen and a draw for subscribers forever. Talk shows are usually topical and current in nature, and lose their appeal once the news cycle has moved on. It is not worth the investment for many streaming services, and the built-in audience of a time slot on network TV is not there. It will likely be up to other online companies and content creators to innovate in the space.
Not all look grim for TV talk shows. Whatever potential competitors can use talk shows can use as well. While some productions are behind smaller competition, the pandemic did force certain types of adaptation onto both audiences and shows alike. The idea of a guest video calling in on a talk show is by no means foreign to us now and assuming the call quality can be perfected we will get a lot more guest variety or see favorites returning more often, not needing to fly to the filming location to get a segment together. While many people have called in to talk shows in the past, taking things to the next level will keep audiences thinking television is where the best content is at.
Similarly, talk shows might have varying hosts or a wide range of them. If television takes a page out of the internet’s book, we might see virtual talk show hosts or talk show hosts engaging a lot more with a virtual audience. Seeing a talk show via a VR headset might seem like a niche novelty, but it could be made into a great experiment that keeps fans tuning in.
More talk shows are being created for niche markets. We may see more experimentation and less resistance to said experimentation. This could be a natural result of diversity or as a ploy to stand out from the crowd. In any event, if something stands out, expect it to be adopted by other programs.
While we cannot get into every nook and cranny of the subject here, it should be noted that the future of TV, in general, is intertwined with that of TV in general. If ratings go down in general and people cut the cord, TV talk shows will as a result suffer a hit and might be forced to get more creative to either engage an online audience or hold on more to the viewers they have. How they would do so is unknown, but not every talk show would survive (few do to begin with).
As you can see in the chart below, we are seeing some decline in the number of TV subscribers. At the very least we are not seeing the levels that we would hope for given the population growth.
And while we would like to count the number of talk shows on the air, it is not practical to do so. By the time you read this article, the number will be wrong. Alternatively, a talk show will be off-season, or there will be a quick cancellation or controversy that puts it into question. Yet this fact says a lot about talk shows. While there are pillars that you know and love, there are also a lot of others going on and off, like all television.
The needs talk shows fill are always going to be around, and as such the talk show itself is here to stay for a long time. You may watch them now or you will find a spot for them in your life later down the line. Nonetheless, they are an interesting and evolving subject, able to be broken down into bits and able to be watched with minimal context. We hope that you learned something of interest here and that you will be able to find something you like soon. Even if not, we hope you better understand the potential appeal to others and what to expect in the future.