What ‘SNL’s’ coast-to-coast live experiment says about our streaming habits, second screens and the Trump factor
For more than 40 years, the cry, “Live, from New York” has kicked off “Saturday Night Live” since its debut on NBC with the original band of “not ready for prime time players.” And for more than 40 years West Coast viewers have known that the line is not for them.
Except this week — and for three weeks after — those players will be ready for a prime-time close-up across the country as the late-night comedy incubator will air live coast to coast at 8:30 p.m.
“‘SNL’ is part of the national conversation,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt said in a statement when the move was announced. “We thought it would be a great idea to broadcast to the West and Mountain time zones live at the same time it’s being seen in the East and Central time zones.” In other words, before Twitter and Facebook users on the East Coast spoil the jokes for the rest of us.
The move is part of a larger push for live programming — a reaction to the ongoing shift in TV viewing habits from linear, terrestrial broadcasts to on-demand or streaming options. Which is why the experiment makes as much sense for NBC as it does for “SNL.” The show has been enjoying one of its strongest seasons in recent memory.
The unexpected election of President Trump has been a boon for late-night comedy. Ratings have been up for “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” on Comedy Central, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” on TBS and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” which has topped its NBC rival “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” for 10 consecutive weeks.
Not coincidentally, Fallon will be the first host of “Saturday Night Live’s” prime-time run on the West Coast. Fallon was an “SNL” cast member from 1998 to 2004, and a return to his home turf could be a way for the “Tonight Show” host to regain some of his momentum on social media and beyond after falling behind to Colbert, who has flourished as politics have taken a greater hold on popular culture.
Before this season, “Saturday Night Live” — like much of the late-night comedy landscape — acted primarily as a delivery system for bite-size, shareable clips that could be watched again and again in the hopes of going viral online. It’s the sort of strategy that once favored Fallon with genially goofy “Tonight Show” segments like “Lip Sync Battle,” but that has been supplanted by more pointed political material from the likes of Colbert, Seth Meyers and John Oliver.
However, the recent lift in ratings for “SNL” has led the show to take chances with bits targeting viewers outside of the YouTube circuit. A gag with cast member Kate McKinnon portraying Kellyanne Conway with her legs folded recurred three times during a March episode, which could only have been caught if someone was watching the show straight through.
Now in its 42nd season, “SNL” has reaped the benefits of high-profile segments that have skewered the executive branch. Though the show’s ratings fell somewhat last weekend during the show’s return to its regular schedule with host Louis CK, ratings have been up more than 25% this season compared with the previous one, attracting more than 11 million viewers. And the show is up 21% among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic.
That counts as a resurgence for a show that only a year ago was in rebuilding mode after the contracts of longtime cast members Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah were not renewed. By contrast, “SNL” has been so strong this year that it’s again planning to spin off its “Weekend Update,” hosted by Michael Che and Colin Jost, into four primetime episodes this summer, beginning Aug. 10. (In 2009, “SNL” planned a similar move with a six-episode order for “Weekend Update,” but aired only three.)
A big part of “Saturday Night Live’s” recent success has been its politically tilted cold-open segments, which have featured Alec Baldwin as President Trump and “Ghostbusters” star Melissa McCarthy lampooning embattled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (McCarthy will also host “SNL” during this run of West Coast live broadcasts on May 13).
Her performances have made such a far-reaching impression that Spicer even referenced one of her sketch’s gags about a mobile podium during a news conference in March.
“That’s the part I didn’t like,” McCarthy told The Times in a recent interview. “I was like ‘No! It’s not us’ [gesturing to two people] making that joke, it’s we’re making that joke.
“I had a moment of fear about that when he was like, ‘Don’t make me move the podium.’ I thought, No, that’s not your joke to make,” she explained.
Still, a sense of inclusiveness is part of the reason behind “Saturday Night Live” opting to live up to its name across the country. “That way, everyone is in on the joke at the same time,” Greenblatt explained.
“The second screen” of in-the-moment social media chatter has become a coveted space for broadcasters, who have been experimenting with live broadcasts in other genres for years. Comedies such as “30 Rock” and “The Drew Carey Show” have aired live on both coasts, and both NBC and Fox have aired live presentations of beloved musicals such as “Grease,” “Peter Pan” and “The Wiz.” Awards shows have long benefited from social media buzz, and NBC’s Jan. 11 telecast of the Golden Globes generated 4.4 million comments on Twitter. This year, after years of the Globes, the Oscars and Emmys being aired live across the country, the Grammys followed suit.
The question is whether the “SNL” time shift will truly make a difference in viewing habits. Going live across the country does not guarantee a bonanza of viewers. The ratings for this year’s Grammys showed no appreciable difference from the previous year, and ratings for live musicals have consistently fallen short of the initial peak of “The Sound of Music,” which attracted more than 18 million viewers when it aired in 2013.
For “Saturday Night Live,” shifting to an earlier time on the West Coast may generate end-of-season buzz, but it may also work to its disadvantage. Saturday is traditionally the lowest-viewed night of prime time on the schedule, and the show’s pre-recorded, 11:30 p.m. time slot was well-suited for older viewers coming home after a night out. If the shows air three hours earlier on the West Coast, any potential new viewers NBC hopes to attract could still be away from home taking advantage of spring’s longer days.
So what then? Fortunately, “Saturday Night Live” will repeat at the same time as well as its usual online sources the next day. Just like always.
‘Saturday Night Live’
When: 8:30 p.m. PST Saturday (repeats 11:30 p.m. PST)
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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