Election Day is a big deal in the cable news world. Like the Super Bowl or World Series, elections provide CNN, MSNBC and Fox News with a captive audience of news junkies ready to spend the next six hours looking at color-coded maps.
The midterm elections do not traditionally attract the same enthusiasm as presidential contests, but the current hyper-partisan atmosphere provided a sense of urgency and a jolt of energy for Tuesday’s midterms. The result was that cable news had a lot more competition than, say, “PBS Newshour.”
Even late-night comedians seemed eager to join in the action. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” all produced live election shows, announcing election returns on the air, some of which broke during the broadcasts themselves. Colbert even had a running ticker at the bottom of the screen with voter tallies updating in real time.
Turns out the people best equipped to cover a political environment lead by a reality-show star are people who have at least one foot rooted in show business themselves.
Their coverage, both jokey and serious, put some of the more traditional shows to shame in the process. Turns out some of the people best equipped to cover a political environment lead by a reality-show star are people who have at least one foot rooted in show business themselves. Their perspectives provided a timely, relatable frame of reference for viewers looking for clarity on what was happening — and why it mattered.
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Speaking truth to power using comedy isn’t new, but late-night comedy has not always been so overtly political. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno may have made the odd joke at the news’ expense, but it wasn’t their focus — and they certainly didn’t produce live election night specials.
This began to change with the 2000 election, when Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” extensively covered the race for the White House. Stewart took over the series from Craig Kilborn a year earlier, and his obsession with politics and news changed the series’ focus from celebrity gossip into the satirical show people think of today. Colbert was already a member of the “Daily Show” cast when Stewart arrived, and his parody of a Republican-leaning correspondent was a career breakthrough. When 2008 rolled around, Colbert anchored “The Colbert Report” as a companion piece to Stewart’s half hour. It was a political parody dream team.
Colbert made the jump to CBS in 2015, bringing along these live parody broadcasts. His coverage of the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions helped push him ahead of long-time rival “The Tonight Show.” Naturally, “The Late Show” also went live on election night, bringing the now-Comedy Central-staple to network. Like in 2008, Colbert anticipated another historic first. But when Trump came out on top, the results were more fascinating than if Hillary won; Colbert had to keep a visibly upset and shaken live audience calm on the air.
It may have been a rocky night, but the media attention Colbert got for it proved irresistible. CBS discovered that the more the “Late Show” host was openly opinionated about the Trump administration, the better his ratings become. The show shot to number one in the late-night series race the night Trump was inaugurated, and has stayed there ever since. Likewise, over on ABC, their late-night show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” a relative newcomer to the format, discovered Kimmel’s reviews went through the roof when he came out against the repeal of Obamacare.
Meanwhile, over on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Jimmy Fallon’s longtime flagship of a show has languished, a slump some people connect to Fallon’s fawning Trump interview during the campaign. “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” which follows it at 12:30 a.m., has been on the rise, however. Meyers’ show is perhaps the most hard-hitting of all the broadcast late night shows, often coming off as a broadcast variant of HBO’s lauded “Last Week with John Oliver.”
On Tuesday night, however, Meyers was part of a crowded field. Colbert and Kimmel both presented live, leaving only Fallon sitting on the sidelines, preempted by the hard news teams. On cable, “The Daily Show,” now hosted by Trevor Noah, also broadcast live, as has been the tradition for a decade.
But though Colbert now treads softer and sillier than his old “Colbert Report” segments, he still has a massive one-up on cable news when it comes to election coverage. Unlike channels like CNN, which strive to be perceived as even-handed, Colbert can call out the political realities of the moment. Indeed, Colbert was the first to savor the idea that at least there’s now one small check in the balance’s column.
Kimmel took aim at the more frivolous (yet funny) portions of stereotypical election night bells and whistles, with segments like “The Night of 1000 Graphs” and “The Wall of Wolf Blitzers.” Meanwhile Meyers, who airs an hour after everyone else had thus a bit more time to prepare, put together one of his classic ten-minute deep dives (entitled “A Closer Look”), exploring what Democrats retaking the House majority means in context of Trump’s next two years. If anything, the “Daily Show” was left in the proverbial dust, as the broadcast shows recorded above average numbers.
Colbert captured the biggest overall audience of the evening, but even Kimmel could boast that his show pulled in an audience not seen since last spring. The numbers weren’t Fox News level, but viewers still tuned in in droves, and that’s not counting the millions of cord-cutters who watched the next morning on YouTube.
Unlike in 2016, liberals had plenty to celebrate on Tuesday — despite losing some ground in the Senate — and the election was a historic one for women and minorities, with over 100 women to the 435-seat chamber. But while the experts and pundits on CNN, MSNBC and Fox had plenty of pie charts and exit polls to play with, Colbert and company did an excellent job of ultimately putting the night in perspective.
“Democrats have taken control of half of one of three branches of the government,” Colbert noted in his opening monologue. “All the GOP has is the other half of Congress, the Supreme Court and the president who does whatever he wants.” Talk about a mic drop.