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Late night television in the United States is the block of television programming airing after 11:00 p.m. and usually through 2:00 a.m. Traditionally, this type of programming airs after the late local news and is most notable for being the daypart used for a particular genre of programming that falls somewhere between a variety show and a talk show.
Popular shows within the late night talk show genre include The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Late Late Show with James Corden, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Conan. Famous former hosts include Johnny Carson of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno of The Tonight Show (who has taped more episodes than any other late night host), Craig Ferguson of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Arsenio Hall of The Arsenio Hall Show, Tom Snyder of Tomorrow, and The Late Late Show, Steve Allen, the father of the late night talk show and founder of Tonight (now known as "The Tonight Show"), Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett, early competitors with Carson, and Jack Paar, the man who followed Steve Allen as host of the Tonight Show and who is responsible for setting the standards for the genre.
Television network typically produce two late night shows: one taped in New York City and one in Los Angeles. Most are taped late in the afternoon; exceptions include Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which finishes taping about an hour before it is broadcast, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which airs live after events of major importance. The fact that this limits accurate coverage of the latest 24-hour news cycle is sometimes the source of irony humor or notable delays (for instance, The Death of Michael Jackson, a frequent butt of late night jokes, on the afternoon of June 25, 2009 came after all but Kimmel had taped their shows, and as such, Kimmel was the only one to mention it that night).
Until September 2009 and again since spring 2010, the "Big Three television networks" (NBC, ABC and CBS) have all begun their late night programming at 11:35 p.m. Eastern Time Zone each night; Fox, the fourth major U.S. network, aired only one day of late night programming (Saturday) starting at 11:00 p.m. This is a half-hour to one hour after the end of prime time to allow local stations to air newscasts, and most stations (with a few exceptions) do. ABC, CBS and NBC all begin their late night schedules with comedy and interview-based talk shows, however only CBS and NBC air additional lead-out talk shows beginning in the 12:35 a.m. Eastern Time slot; on ABC, the newsmagazine Nightline serves as the lead-out to Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
For a brief time in fall 2009, NBC followed a significantly different model in September 2009, following severe losses of audience for its scripted dramas. Jay Leno, formerly the host of NBC's long-running The Tonight Show franchise, had moved his show to 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time, ahead of the local newscasts on most stations in a time slot that competes with CBS's and ABC's prime time programming (though Fox affiliates would have cut to post-primetime news or sitcom reruns by this time). Beginning in September 2009, Leno hosted The Jay Leno Show, which was mostly similar to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno with a few adjustments. This made way for Conan O'Brien (formerly the host of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, another long-running NBC late night franchise) to take over The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, while Jimmy Fallon has assumed hosting duties for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The remaining late night programs (Poker After Dark and Last Call with Carson Daly) remained as is, and NBC warned its affiliates not to preempt or delay Leno for local news. After affiliates' fears of significantly lower ratings for local news were in fact realized, NBC announced it would indeed cancel its 10:00 p.m. experiment and move Leno back to his traditional start time of 11:35 (originally by moving The Jay Leno Show, before rejoining as host of the latter show outright 2010 Tonight Show conflict due to problems over the network's original plan to shift Tonight a half-hour later to make room for Leno).
Of the major networks, NBC, ABC and CBS program the late night slot on weekdays, but only NBC carries late night shows on Saturdays. None of the major networks air late night shows on Sunday nights. Until the early 1990s, syndicated late night talk shows were fairly common, due to NBC having the only network shows in that slot at the time. The Arsenio Hall Show, which originally ran from 1988 to 1994, was able to pick from CBS, ABC or Fox affiliates (the affiliate makeup of the short-lived revival that aired from 2013 to 2014 consisted of Fox, CW and MyNetworkTV stations). When Late Show with David Letterman and The Chevy Chase Show debuted in 1993, Hall lost a large number of affiliates and ended up leaving the air at the end of the season. There has not been a successful syndicated late night talk show since that time. Fox carried late night programming from 1994 to 2010, but since the cancellation of The Wanda Sykes Show, no longer airs traditional late night programming on any day of the week (a six-week test run of a daily talk show hosted by Craig Kilborn failed to be picked up by the network, and the 90-minute Saturday late night block previously occupied by Sykes and before that by MADtv consisted only of reruns of Fox primetime programming until July 2013, when it added a block of Animation Domination High-Def that was subsequently canceled in 2014 due to sports overruns and remains on the network merely as reruns).
These shows often follow the same canonical format:
- a stand-up comedy segment, called the monologue in which the host makes news satire;
- several sketch comedy, sketches, or other comedy bits;
- interviews with one or two celebrity guests;
- a music guest or stand-up comedy.
There have been deviations from this format. A notable example is Last Call with Carson Daly, which (except for a two-year period from 2007 to 2009) has traditionally avoided monologues and comedy bits, although it originally utilized most major elements of the traditional late-night talk format; in 2009, the show deviated even further from the traditional format by taping all hosted and interview segments on-location (the former of which serve merely as wraparounds as Daly does not interview the guests) and shooting all interviews and musical performances in the style of a documentary.
Late night talk shows often incorporate segments of political satire. Notable examples include The Daily Show (1999–present), The Colbert Report (2005–2014), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–present), and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (2016–present).
Most shows in this genre have an house band that plays musical interludes. Popular late night band leaders include Paul Shaffer, leader of The World's Most Dangerous Band/Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band on Late Night and the Late Show with David Letterman; Max Weinberg, leader of Jimmy Vinno and the Basic Cable Band on Late Night and The Tonight Show Band on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien; Cleto and the Cletones on Jimmy Kimmel Live!; Kevin Eubanks, leader of The Tonight Show Band and the Kevin Eubanks and The Tonight Show Band and The Roots, famous eclectic hip-hop band turned host-band of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (and later The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon).
Usually the band leader is a major part of the show, and the band leader and host often exchange playful banter during the monologue and comedy segments; the band leader has thus taken over the part of being the host's sidekick, which in the past was played by an announcer or designated co-host (such as Ed McMahon and Andy Richter). Of the current late night talk show band leaders who play this role, Paul Shaffer is well known for being a straight man to David Letterman. On The Merv Griffin Show, Mort Lindsey was the official bandleader, but trumpeter (and established comic and voice actor) Jack Sheldon shared most of the comic material and banter with host Merv Griffin. However, on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Max Weinberg rarely spoke during the show, and his interactions with O'Brien were often short and awkward – a running gag on the show (Richter, now the announcer, was O'Brien's primary sidekick on The Tonight Show and has carried on in that role on Conan, whereas new band leader Jimmy Vivino has barely any interaction with O'Brien), and Kevin Eubanks was often the butt of Leno's jokes, particularly regarding drug-related stories. Most notably The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson did not have a house band, and Ferguson often used that fact as a running gag in his show; Ferguson used a robot named Geoff Peterson as his sidekick (The Late Late Show had never had a house band with hosts Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn, and Craig Ferguson, but with James Corden's assumption of hosting duties, the program features a house band led by Reggie Watts).
Often, the show's announcer is also a major part of the show. Famous announcers include Gene Rayburn and Hugh Downs (both from the early years of The Tonight Show); Ed McMahon from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; Edd Hall and John Melendez from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; Bill Wendell and Alan Kalter from Late Show with David Letterman; Dicky Barrett from Jimmy Kimmel Live!; Steve Higgins from the Jimmy Fallon eras of Late Night and The Tonight Show; Andy Richter from The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and Conan; and Don Pardo from Saturday Night Live. These announcers often have significant career accomplishments outside of their particular shows. Before Jen Spyra on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, there were no female late night announcers.
The "midnight movie" format is another popular late night format, found particularly among local stations. Off Beat Cinema (originated on WKBW-TV in Buffalo, New York, before moving to WBBZ-TV and now airing nationally on the Retro Television Network), Big Chuck and Lil' John (a now-discontinued program on WJW in Cleveland), Svengoolie (originating on WFLD in Chicago, before moving to WCIU-TV; and later airing nationally on MeTV), the Creature Double Feature, and Elvira's Movie Macabre are some of the better-known late night hosted movie series.
During the 1970s and 1980s, CBS filled its late-night period with dramatic programming, primarily under the CBS Late Movie banner. Although the time slot did, indeed, feature movies, it also featured a mixture of previously broadcast dramas dating back to the 1960s (i.e. The Avengers, The Prisoner, Kojak) as well as first-run series such as the British imports Return of the Saint and The New Avengers. The CBS Late Movie strand was later supplanted in the 1990s by Crimetime After Primetime, a rotating collection of original series, including several Canadian productions.
There are also some tabloid talk show, such as The Jerry Springer Show, that air in late night due to their adult content. However, these shows typically air in late night involuntarily due to low ratings in their original daytime slots, no room on their station's schedule in an appropriate timeslot, or to fill time that would otherwise be taken up by infomercials or sitcom reruns. Incidentally, the first program to follow the format known today as the "daytime talk show" aired in late night; Les Crane's pioneering interview show aired on ABC in late night for six months from 1964 to 1965.
A brief influx of game show began to fill the late night airwaves in the mid-to-late-1980s, such as Tom Kennedy's nighttime Price Is Right, The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime, the syndicated version of Sale of the Century, the Bill Rafferty-hosted version of Card Sharks, and High Rollers. These shows were intended for prime time access slots but by that time, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! had already cornered that market, and virtually all of those game shows were cancelled after one season.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the dating game show also filled late night slots in syndication. Two of the earliest successes were Love Connection and Studs. The dating game shows that debuted after 1998 (such as Blind Date, The 5th Wheel and ElimiDate) were known for often pushing the boundaries of sexually suggestive content on broadcast television, and therefore aired in late night on nearly all stations to which they were syndicated, with very few exceptions. Though the genre largely died off from syndication in 2006 (partly due to effects from tighter content restrictions enforced by syndicators after the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show controversy), it saw a resurgence in 2011 with the debut of Excused and Who Wants to Date a Comedian?, followed by the 2012 sale of the cable game show Baggage into syndication; this resurgence was short-lived, as all three shows left syndication in 2013.
Still other late night programs break the standard format; most notably, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a parody of an evening news program, while The Colbert Report (which ran from 2005 to 2014) parodied political talk shows. Fox News' Red Eye uses a round table format which has a mix of news discussion mixed with comedy, although roundtable is only used in the descriptive sense; some guests appear on the program via satellite, while a regular on the show appears from another part of the Fox News studios. Networks have also run music programs in the time period, including NBC's The Midnight Special (which featured contemporary music performances conducted on a soundstage) and Friday Night Videos (which originally featured music video, and eventually mixed in stand-up comedy performances), and ABC's In Concert (which featured concert performances from different bands). In 1975, when NBC decided to no longer air reruns of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on Saturday nights, Tonight was replaced by the comedy-variety series Saturday Night Live, which continues to run as of 2020.
ABC's Nightline has long been an exception to the networks' "comedy/variety" formula. Debuting in 1980 (although it traces its roots to a series of half-hour special reports on the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979), Nightline is a nightly half-hour newsmagazine that originally aired immediately after local newscasts on ABC's owned-and-operated station and affiliates, before being pushed to a later slot in January 2013, when it switched timeslots with Jimmy Kimmel Live. The three major networks have also ventured into overnight newscasts that air after the traditional late night schedules (airing as cycling hour-long blocks that air as early as 2:00 a.m. Eastern Time by default, although stations typically preempt portions of these programs to air locally produced and acquired programming after the network late night lineups): NBC's first overnight newscast was the short-lived NBC News Overnight, which ran from 1982 to 1983; overnight news returned to the network in 1992 with NBC Nightside, which ran until 1999 when it was replaced by a block of overnight repeats of its late night shows. CBS premiered CBS News Nightwatch in 1983, which was replaced in 1991 by Up to the Minute; ABC debuted its own program, World News Now (which has a more laid-back format, mixing serious news with features and some ad-libbed and intentional humor), in August 1992.
Two prominent late night-only cable and satellite channels currently air in the United States: Nick at Nite, a collection of primarily reruns of older and some recent network sitcoms – as well as a limited amount of first-run original programming – that airs over the channel space of Nickelodeon between 8:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time Zone (the start time is subtracted by one hour on Fridays and two hours on Saturdays, due to programs aimed at pre-teens and young teenagers aired by Nickelodeon on those nights), and Adult Swim, a block of animated and a limited amount of live-action programming targeted toward older teenagers and young adults that shares space on the channel slot of Cartoon Network each night from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time.
In the 1980s, it was more common to split one cable television feed into two separate channels – one that aired during the daytime and the other at night; this method was used in particular by cable systems to account for headend infrastructures that limited the number of channels that could be carried on a single system at the time (prior to upgrades that led to the advent of digital cable in the 1990s); however in those cases, providers switched between continuously-running channel feeds between dayparts. Prior to the launch of Nick at Nite, Nickelodeon carried The Movie Channel (from 1979 to 1981), BET (from 1980 to 1981), the Alpha Repertory Television Service (ARTS) (from 1981 to 1984) and ARTS' successor A&E (from 1984 to 1985) over its channel space; each one (except for ARTS, which merged with The Entertainment Channel to form A&E) eventually became its own separate channel.
During the latter half of the 1980s, the Financial News Network carried the sports-oriented Score network during the nighttime hours; "FNN-SCORE" (as it was known collectively) was bought out by CNBC in 1991. From April 2002 to December 2007, one of Nickelodeon's digital spinoff channels was, similar to its parent channel, divided so that the preschool-oriented programs under its primary Noggin brand aired during the day and teen-oriented programs aired at night as "The N" (these two blocks – which split from one another on December 31, 2007 under their prior brands – are now their own separate channels, Nick Jr. and TeenNick, and both broadcast 24 hours a day). TeenNick itself launched a late night block of its own in July 2011, NickRewind, featuring reruns of Nickelodeon programs from the 1990s and is aimed at young adults who watched these programs during that decade as children. Nick Jr. followed suit with the female-oriented block NickMom in October 2012.
Jetix was an action-oriented nighttime block for children that ran on Toon Disney from 2004 to 2009 (the two entities have since been discontinued, with the channel having since relaunched as Disney XD); similarly from its 1983 debut until 1997, Disney XD parent Disney Channel had a nighttime program block featuring family-friendly feature films, older films and music specials aimed at adults known as "Disney Nighttime"; it was replaced by Vault Disney, which offered older Disney series and films (since the latter block ended in 2002, Disney Channel's late night programming has featured reruns of the network's preteen-skewing original series, occasional films and Disney Junior; as such, Disney is the largest American family-oriented cable channel whose nighttime programming is not aimed at an older audience). The Disney Junior channel features some archival programming from the 1990s during the overnight hours.
Late night talk shows, once exclusive to network television, have begun to be included on cable channels as well in recent years due in part to the success of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; other late night cable talk shows such as Conan, @midnight, The Colbert Report and Chelsea Lately have also proven successful; however, late night talk/variety programs on cable have a slight advantage over their broadcast counterparts as most of them typically air at 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time, at the same time that most local broadcast stations air their late evening newscasts and 35 minutes before the major networks begin their late night network programming. These shows also have the advantage of not being subject to Federal Communications Commission guidelines, though internal network standards (in the case of advertiser-supported cable channels) generally result in these shows not being much more ribald than their network counterparts.
Pay television often air softcore pornography during the late night hours (in addition to mainstream programs), containing simulated sexual intercourse and nudity that would likely not be allowed to air during the daytime hours; Cinemax is strongly associated with showing programs of that genre, despite the fact that softcore content encompasses only a few hours of its daily schedule; although most of the Showtime Networks (including Showtime and The Movie Channel) and HBO's multiplex channel HBO Zone have also carried (either presently or in the past) adult films or series. There are 24-hour pay services dedicated to pornographic content that also exist, operating similarly to the pay-per-view model (such as Playboy TV and the more hardcore pornography Spice Networks), which television providers typically sell as nighttime-only packages. Premium channels also run older, lower-profile or obscure feature films (that either received home video, DVD or theatrical release, and often featuring a release lag of up to 30 years) during the overnight hours; these are sometimes interspersed with more recent films, specials and reruns of original series. Some pay services embraced the rise of videocassette recorder in the 1980s and 1990s by promoting the use of recording overnight films for later viewing; The Movie Channel was one such adopter, as from 1986 to 2004, it carried a daily (later weekly) block called "VCR Theater" (later renamed "VCR Overnight" in 1988 and "TMC Overnight" in 1997).
Most American cable channels often air either blocks of infomercial or timeshift channel of prime time programming during late night time periods (the use of replays is most commonly used by cable news channels), while only a handful of basic cable channels (such as TNT, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite and ESPN) maintain a round-the-clock schedule incorporating entertainment programming during the overnight hours.
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