By Chris Jones
Chelsea Handler wants, in essence, to become the “House of Cards” of late-night television.
“There is no real appointment viewing anymore,” the comedian said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune this week. “Nobody watches anything when it’s on anymore. So I want to do something late-night for myself that does not have anything to do with the networks.”
I drank all that in for a minute.
Handler, who has a best-selling book (a humorous travelogue called “Uganda Be Kidding Me”) to promote, has been “opening up” all over the place about her decision to end her E! network late-night show, “Chelsea Lately,” in August, once her contract is up.
In an “exclusive interview” with London’s Daily Mail, sandwiched between all the other exclusive interviews she has been doing, she blamed having to talk to air-headed celebrities such as Justin Bieber, though in her interview with me, for the record, the antagonist was more the network and what she called its lack of promotional clout.
Still, the Mail slaughterhouse got all the red meat: “I don’t care about Justin Bieber, and I don’t want to talk about him anymore,” Handler told the Mail, which blew up that incendiary line with all the enthusiasm that regular readers would expect, deeming Handler “totally fed up of stars.”
Who isn’t? Those darn stars.
Handler, of course, is an exceedingly smart and ambitious star herself who well understands that her tell-it-like-it-is brand would not easily survive any perception of pandering to network “families.”
But her desire for a Netflix (or Netflix-type) streaming late-night show that you can watch at a time and a place of your own choosing brings up an interesting issue that goes far beyond Handler’s own role in a changed but still white-male-dominated late-night world.
The moment you encourage people to watch a late-night show anytime they want, how is it really a late-night show anymore? Is a late-night show still a late-night show if you’re watching it in your office at 10 in the morning?
In the pre-streaming age, the nature of those shows was inextricably linked to the hour of their viewing, even when they were not broadcast live.
Millions fell asleep to Johnny Carson, blessing the advent of the remote control, once there was a remote control, during their later, fitful waking to the sound of an infomercial spewing from the corner of the bedroom.
The comfort factor of Carson was made yet more crucial by his need to be invited into America’s bedrooms at the most intimate hour.
The early David Letterman sensibility was formed by the age of the target viewers, a preponderance of wide-awake students with no kids to rouse them in the morning and no class until 11.
Sprawled in the living rooms of their dorms and apartments, they were looking for comforting company, too, but of a different, more caustic sort.
Once you untie these time-slots from their time-slots, they surely float in a very different sea.
And yet these shows still are defined by the moment of their broadcast: when Letterman announced his retirement, CBS President Leslie Moonves immediately went looking for a late-night replacement (he found Stephen Colbert, of course, seemingly an ideal type for the genre).
Close watchers of the Jimmy Fallon incarnation of “The Tonight Show” have been noticing how that savvy host has been producing more and more content that easily can be edited into small chunks and distributed via social media.
So it’s overstating things to say that this is all simply a matter of old media not wanting to face a tough new reality.
Still, few have yet been willing to say that time no longer matters when it comes to late-night shows.
In a recent public interview with me in Chicago, Kevin Spacey talked at length about how the (then-) radical idea of distributing “House of Cards” all at once has been the game-changer for proving that shows could get huge buzz without everyone watching them at the same speed or in the same time slot.
Dramas are now largely freed from their prime-time jail. It is an accepted reality that people want to consume them at a time of their own choosing.
That same change is much more terrifying for the current players in the talk-show landscape. Such shows come with a baked-in topicality, and thus a short shelf-life if the audience is not captured immediately.
The shows also sell to advertisers who are used to buying their slots based on who they expect to be watching, a demographic that owes as much to the hour of broadcast as to the content of the show.
The idea of a streaming late-night show without any chronological anchor is a lot more radical.
But Handler seems well equipped to pull that off.
She paused for a moment when I asked how a late-night show you could watch at any time could still be said to be a late-night show.
“It is a sensibility,” she said, a tad defensively, befitting one without an actual slot when slots still matter. “It is derived from the vibe of the show, the talent on the show. You will be able to tell you are not watching ‘The View.'”
Perhaps. But we’ve only ever seen “The View” with the preconception that it is a daytime show.
Most people would probably say that daytime shows are softer, more relationship/self-help based, aimed more at stay-at-home parents, that kind of thing, whereas late-night shows are faster, more glamorous, more A-list in their talent.
But most of that represents old hierarchies, surely, and is reflective of a good dose of old-fashioned sexism. Once they are all on the same server, it could well be that some daytime products look just as late-night as the self-defined late-night shows.
As with all else in the new media landscape, it’s all up for grabs.
Colbert, Fallon and Seth Meyers had all better pay attention.
Handler may still be smarting from perceived slights, but she’s clearly ready and able to slice and dice on demand.