Yesterday in this space, I was writing about Saturday Night Live and the resurgence of TV satire. I'm not finished yet.
See, there was an interesting development last week in the ongoing late-night wars of American TV. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS beat NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in total viewers for the first time since Colbert arrived in September, 2015.
In a tightly packed comedy arena (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver returns to HBO and HBO Canada this Sunday at 11 p.m.), any shift is seen as seismic. Colbert's rare victory is being explained as a "Trump bump" – his focus on the first days of the Trump presidency and the harsher tone to his material boosted the ratings. Similar ratings bumps have been enjoyed by Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee.
Colbert's triumph has drawn widespread attention. The online version of Vanity Fair declared, "It seems the tides are really turning" in the late-night tussle for viewers.
A more sobering assessment came from the trade magazine Variety: "Stephen Colbert Tops Jimmy Fallon in Viewers but No Trump Bump Yet for Late-Night Overall" said the headline.
The reason is this – Colbert has nowhere near Fallon's audience in younger viewers. From this fact, we can extrapolate a few things. One is the possibility that younger viewers, especially those under 35, don't care about TV and don't care about Trump bashing. They've tuned out.
It makes sense that Colbert and others are benefiting from stronger ratings. This is a highly charged, fiercely politicized time in the United States. In terms of content, it also makes sense for everyone from Colbert to Jimmy Kimmel to use material that viewers relate to – the outrageous drama that is the White House and the attempts to push forward the Trump agenda.
And yet, it doesn't tickle everyone. While Fallon clearly isn't at his best doing political humour and his lack of political bite doesn't bother younger viewers, there is an even more interesting pattern unfolding.
Fallon's ratings are soft and getting softer. Among viewers aged 18 to 49 there has been drift away from the show. They're watching or doing something else. The obvious and knee-jerk conclusion is that the younger audience is online, indulging in social-media habits while everyone else is watching TV. Or they're watching Netflix and chilling.
On the other hand, the number of people watching salient segments of late-night shows the next day has skyrocketed, especially on YouTube, which has a much younger audience base than traditional TV.
When Colbert had Jon Stewart on recently, to engage in a bizarre and shambolic mockery of Trump, the clip garnered nearly six million views on YouTube. One of John Oliver's Last Week segments about Trump eventually got 31 million views on YouTube.
Perhaps what we extrapolate, in the end, is that Variety doesn't quite have it right. The victory by Stephen Colbert isn't "fake news" simply because younger viewers aren't watching. They are watching – but they're doing it the next day, online.
Nothing is as it seems in the late-night wars. There is indeed a "Trump bump," there is indeed a decline in the mass audience for late night and, yes, fewer young people are watching late-night TV. Until the next day, when everyone, of all ages, pays attention.
Airing Thursday night
The Great Wild Indoors (CBC, 8 p.m. on Nature of Things) was presented to me as a program that would "change your initial reaction of 'Eeew' at the diverse insects living (and dying) right under your nose to one of fascination and awe." Well, maybe. It's a colourful production with eye-popping visuals that offers a dramatic look at the critters, especially bugs, who exist inside the average home. A scientist describes a tiny thing that lives in your carpet as "beautiful," but you might be disgusted. If you need to know that a woodlouse living in your basement isn't an insect but is a crustacean, fine. The program will probably inspire some people to get an early start on spring cleaning.
Lost on Arrival: Me, the Mounties & PTSD (CBC, 9 p.m. on Firsthand) is a powerful, compelling documentary that takes us under the surface of TV news. And it's very personal. It's about veteran CBC Radio and TV news reporter Curt Petrovich, whose voice will be instantly familiar. He spent 30 years reporting and was proud of his ability to get the story and report it. But in 2013, when he was covering Typhoon Haiyan, which hammered the Philippines, he felt the full impact of his job. Even today, when discussing it, he sounds shaken. He talks about how he began to be disturbed by the sight of body bags and then, when he saw vast numbers of the bags laid out on the ground, amid the destruction, he began to disintegrate mentally. In phone calls to his wife in Canada, he just sobbed. He was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. As the doc recounts, while Petrovich tried to recover, slowly, he found himself in odd company – with Mounties who were involved in the 2007 taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport.