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Will Jon Stewart's TV audience come back? Here's why it may not matter.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and guest Jon Stewart during Monday's June 17, 2019 show.
Jon Stewart, pictured in 2015, is making a return to conventional TV.Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images
  • Jon Stewart hasn't been on conventional TV since 2015.

  • TV audiences are shrinking, and late-night TV is having a particularly hard time.

  • But Stewart could do well on TikTok, YouTube, and other digital outlets, and that may be enough.

Jon Stewart is coming back to (regular) TV. Will he find his audience there when he shows up?

That's a fair question, given that the TV landscape has changed dramatically since he left in 2015.

Cable TV audiences and TV audiences in general have been melting away. And late-night shows like "The Daily Show" — the perch Stewart is returning to next month — have had real trouble keeping eyeballs, giving the competing lure of TikTok or YouTube or whatever.

When Stewart left "The Daily Show" in 2015, he was bringing in an average of 2.2 million viewers a night, according to Nielsen. By the time his replacement Trevor Noah signed off at the end of 2022, that number had shrunk to 600,000. And during 2023, when Comedy Central used a battery of guest hosts to keep the show going, that audience had shrunk to 570,000.

Advertisers are very aware of the decay: Between 2018 and 2022, late-night ad dollars dropped by 40%, Variety reported.

On the other hand, maybe wondering about Stewart's TV audience isn't the right question. After Stewart's news broke, I made a couple calls to people who have a good bead on late night and Stewart and they told me to view it this way: Ignore the TV ratings.

Instead, concentrate on the way clips from Stewart's weekly show perform on social — on the likes of TikTok or YouTube or whatever.

This is kind of obvious advice in 2024, when late-night comedy is routinely cut up and distributed on the internet. But also not completely obvious. If TV ratings aren't important, then why would Stewart come back to a TV network — and why would a TV network care about landing Stewart?

For Stewart, who spent the past few years toiling in near obscurity on an Apple TV show (if you haven't seen it, you're not alone), it can be as simple as getting back in the public eye. Doing a thing he's good at on Comedy Central — the thing he was good at doing on Comedy Central a decade ago — could be a real boost.

"This is about getting a platform that can then get social currency," a TV insider tells me. "He needs a home to do it."

Yes, Stewart doesn't need Comedy Central to host and produce a TV show, then get clips from those shows cut up and distributed to various platforms.

He could finance all of that himself, or find people who wanted to put up the money. My TikTok is full of people self-producing "Daily Show"-style comedy and interviews (with very varied results).

On the other hand: Coming back to Comedy Central means he'll have a turnkey operation that knows how to make TV and has spent a lot of time and money figuring out how to make bits of TV travel on the internet.

And for a certain kind of performer, and a certain kind of TV watcher — that is, old people like me — a brand like "The Daily Show" still has meaning and resonance, even when it gets cut up and clipped on Instagram or whatever. It's going to garner attention in a way that Jon Stewart Talks On YouTube would struggle to do.

And make no mistake: "The Daily Show" audience was old when Stewart was on TV — the median age of his viewers was 48 when he left the show — and it has gotten much, much older: Nielsen says the show's median viewer age was 60 during Noah's last year, and more than 63 during the 2023 guest host season.

What about from Comedy Central's perspective? They are, after all, a cable TV network owned by a TV company that primarily gets paid when people subscribe to their networks or watch their shows on TV. It's not easy to make real money from YouTube clips, and next to impossible (right now) from TikTok or Instagram.

One theory is that Stewart's old audience, who are … old, will indeed come back to watch him. That audience is still buoying Stewart protege Stephen Colbert at CBS, where "The Late Show" averages a bit under 2 million viewers a night.

But even if they don't, the TV people I talked to argue that it won't matter that much to Comedy Central. If Stewart does translate well to TikTok — and with the right editing and production, it should — that's still a win for owner Paramount, which is very much up for sale.

At the moment, Paramount's big assets are a very expensive NFL deal, a very expensive deal with "Yellowstone" creator Taylor Sheridan, and Tom Cruise, who makes "Mission Impossible" movies for the company but is also going to start making movies for rival Warner Bros. It's easy to imagine Paramount thinking that the halo of Stewart — even if it's "the kids love this stuff on social" halo instead of a ratings halo — could be meaningful to a potential buyer.

Read the original article on Business Insider