Watching Conan O’Brien’s final Tonight Show last Friday got me thinking about the ritual of ending one’s day with late-night television, a way many of us no longer consume media thanks to digital options — especially those in the 18-34 demographic, the most eroded of late-night’s audience, according to the New York Times. I’m a part of that demo, and this definitely applies to me — I used to be a faithful viewer of The Daily Show, but when the pressure of watching every night was lifted by my TiVo, unwatched episodes quickly piled up and eventually I just deleted my subscription to the show. However, watching Conan say goodbye reminded me of how much I did use to enjoy the ritual, in those pre-TiVo days, of curling up with comedy before bed.
So this week, I set myself a challenge: Instead of doing what I usually do, which is catch up with the show on Fridays via Hulu or the official site, I’d return to the old days and watch The Daily Show live on TV, at 11 PM PST, without the use of DVR to skip commercials. I didn’t take this on thinking I’d be winning the Pulitzer or anything — Nellie Bly, were she still alive, would roll her eyes at me and then commit herself to another insane asylum. But after living in a whenever-I-want digital world for so long, it took some genuine adjustment on a number of levels (for one thing, staying awake past 11 proved to be a challenge.) Here’s what I learned as a result…
The jokes are funnier when they’re fresher
As opposed to, say, a classic episode of 30 Rock that never gets stale, The Daily Show is meant to be reactionary to the day’s news, and watching Jon Stewart beat up on a tired topic just isn’t as entertaining too long after the fact. And it really doesn’t take long at all for an issue to get old these days: On Thursday, for example, Stewart and correspondent Wyatt Cenac mocked Chris Matthews’ comment that he’d forgotten President Obama was black. But by the time that episode aired, the story was already 24 hours old and bore a strong resemblance to a dead horse. Even a slight delay accentuates the problem. Daily Show bears some delicious fruit — I haven’t laughed this much in quite some time — but it spoils quickly.
It’s cool to see the jokes first
There have been trends recently in the late-night world of buzz-worthy moments being quietly leaked — a recent example being Joaquin Phoenix’s head-scratcher of a Letterman appearance. But comedy is unpredictable, and it’s hard to know what will end up spreading. This morning when I started sifting through blogs, a quote from last night’s show was making the rounds, and I couldn’t help but feel satisfied to have been ahead of the curve on it.
A thought for Comedy Central: I don’t know what it would take to make this happen, but it was frustrating to watch the show each night, go to my computer, and not be able to share links to what I’d just seen. If the clips from that night’s show were to go live after, say, the East or West coast broadcast, as opposed to the morning after, then viewers who’d tuned in that night would be able to instantly pass around the funny.
Commercials don’t just sell products
Sure, they’re a drag, but I’d forgotten how commercials can offer a highly unscientific but potentially insightful look into what audience advertisers think a show is attracting. The viewer of a new Daily Show episode, by my estimation, is fond of beer and booze (a trend which increased slightly as we grew closer to Friday,) able to afford luxury cars, and potentially single (there was a regular spot for a dating website during every show.)
That’s an 11 PM viewer of The Daily Show, for the record. On Tuesday night, I missed the entire show, and so in order to stay in the game I watched the rebroadcast at 1 PM Wednesday afternoon. Turns out the Comedy Central audience during that time slot is strikingly different, as the beer commercials were replaced with ads for diet drinks and pills. It’s not news that daytime audiences skew much more female — daytime TV is what gave birth to Target: Women, after all — but watching the same show being packaged for a different crowd was intriguing. Common elements across the two time-slots: luxury cars and that dating website, though the spokesperson in the daytime ad was male, as opposed to female at night (presumably to attract the opposite gender.)
Are all of those factors worth a permanent return to old-school consumption? Not necessarily. I definitely wasn’t invested in every segment equally, and would have happily skipped stuff like the interview with author Ethan Watters on Wednesday night if I’d been consuming a la carte. I watched way more commercials this week than usual in comparison to Hulu, and annoyingly the bulk of them were repeats that I quickly grew sick of. And while this week I made this challenge a priority, juggling an occasionally busy social life and a regular sit-down commitment to a television show isn’t sustainable on a long-term basis. So I may try to watch more regularly, though perhaps saving it for the following morning, when I can be selective about which sections to watch.
One thing I know for sure — while timeslots might be irrelevant to the digital audience, after trying to stay up past 11:30 every night this week, I can say they sure as hell matter in real-time.