Comedy Central's political programming didn't take a hard-left turn yesterday.
Yet its cumulative impact might have caused big changes within the network.
Longtime Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless is stepping down at the end of the month. The decision was hers, according to reports. It’s hard to think the channel’s declining ratings didn’t factor into the move.
Has the barrage of hard-left content damaged the funny network’s brand?
Variety recently revealed the channel’s current plight:
Like MTV, Comedy Central targets a young audience and has experienced ratings declines sharper than those being endured at other cable networks. The worst of those have come in the 11 p.m. hour, where new late-night hosts Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore are drawing numbers significantly below those of their predecessors, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
The channel’s one-two punch of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” put its liberal political programming on the map.
Their combined ratings never measured up to breakout hits like AMC’s “The Walking Dead” or HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Not even close.
Still, the shows drew enough eyeballs, combined with critical adoration, to make the Comedy Central suits happy. And if you missed one of their scathing pieces on a member of the Bush family, Mitt Romney or other GOP stalwarts, you were in luck. The mainstream media helped you catch up by replaying them with a chuckle and grin.
A hearty social media afterlife extended the shows’ reach even further.
Now, both Colbert and Stewart are gone. Their replacements, Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah, are far less gifted satirists, to be kind. And the ratings prove it. Both shows have suffered significant drops since the comedy batons got passed.
Those shows aren’t the only places to find liberal programming.
Comedy Central’s “Broad City” also devoted an entire recent episode to worshiping Hillary Clinton. This wasn’t just a cameo by a game politician. The episode’s story line treated the former First Lady like a Beltway all-star, not a candidate struggling to beat back an aged socialist.
And then there’s Amy Schumer.
The star of “Inside Amy Schumer” is the current “It” comedian, thanks to her fresh comic approach and her breakout feature “Trainwreck.” She’s gone from poking social mores to full-on feminism with her show’s sketches. She’s also using “Inside” as a bully pulpit for gun control, contorting facts along the way.
Audiences know when they’re getting a lecture. The best comedians deftly integrate their messages into their material. Not here.
Schumer’s recent home shopping sketch looked like it was written by a gun control advocacy group. And, in case you missed the neon-light propaganda, the show included information for viewers to reach Everytown for Gun Safety.
Schumer, still building her star status, could segue from an adorably raunchy comic into a divisive personality. She should be nearing her commercial peak right about now. So why did the ratings for her show’s fourth season premiere slip appreciably from 2015’s season debut?
Other Comedy Central shows don’t have any ideological axes to grind. Take the long-running “Tosh.0,” a melange of wacky web videos under Daniel Tosh’s gaze. If anything, Tosh is the poster child for politically incorrect comedy, given his hard-edged gags built on race and social divisions.
What’s missing on Comedy Central? An overtly conservative show or star. Now, few comics lean decidedly to the right, so it’s hard to demand the channel hire comedians who think that way.
The network suits still could lean on its current hosts to attempt a more balanced approach, particularly during a heated election year.
Perhaps Wilmore’s regularly liberal panels could feature more conservatives to stir some genuine debate?
Maybe the new Comedy Central president will do just that. If not, the current ratings decline may not reverse … at least until November comes and goes.