The Problem With NBC’s Long-Overdue Efforts to Diversify Late Night

"Wilmore" and "The Amber Ruffin Show" are breaking new ground. But are they also doomed to fail?

October 7, 2020 10:52 am
peacock larry wilmore amber ruffin
Can the Peacock streaming service change the face of late-night TV?
Rodin Eckenroth / Ismael Quintanilla, Getty Images

Every now and then, a fact or statistic related to diversity (or the lack thereof) in the entertainment business comes out that’s so outrageous that it somehow simultaneously feels impossible and unsurprising. “That can’t be right,” we tell ourselves, before stopping to think for a few seconds about the sad state of an industry that still centers itself by and large around straight, cis white men and realizing Of course it is.

Are you ready for one of those?

When Amber Ruffin became a writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers in 2014, she became the first ever Black woman to write for a late-night network show in the United States. (Yes, in 2014! As in six years ago! Exactly 60 years after the first show in the genre, Tonight With Steve Allen, made its debut!)

In her time on Seth Meyers, Ruffin has proven herself to be an essential voice on the show, appearing on-camera in her “Amber Says What” segments as well as the self-aware “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” bit and sharing stories of her own traumatic run-ins with the police this summer in the wake of the public outcry over the murder of George Floyd. When the news that she would be hosting her own late-night talk show on NBC’s new streaming service, Peacock, came, it was more than welcome and long overdue.

Between The Amber Ruffin Show (a weekly, half-hour program that made its debut on Sept. 25) and Wilmore, a new show hosted by Larry Wilmore, whose Comedy Central series The Nightly Show was cruelly canceled just before the 2016 presidential election, Peacock is absolutely to be commended for championing diverse voices with its late-night programming. And yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that both shows have long roads ahead of them if they’re going to achieve any lasting success in the streaming world.

Most streaming services refuse to share their viewership data, but if the sheer number of talk shows they’ve canceled in recent years is any indication, the format historically does poorly for them. It started in 2016, when Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show Chelsea was set to “revolutionize the talk show” by putting out three half-hour episodes a week on the streaming service for a total of 90 episodes a year. It bombed, and its second-season order was trimmed to just 30 episodes. After that second season, it was canceled, and in an unprecedented move, Netflix actually removed 66 of its episodes from its platform entirely. In recent years, Netflix has also launched and subsequently canceled The Break With Michelle Wolf and The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale, and Hulu canceled Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America after just 21 episodes. Even shows with seemingly dedicated fanbases have met the chopping block recently: in August, Hasan Minhaj’s Peabody Award-winning Patriot Act was canceled by Netflix after six seasons and 39 episodes.

It makes sense, to a certain degree. The general understanding is that people simply don’t turn to streaming services for daily, topical programming. If we want to hear a take on the day’s news or idly watch a celebrity promote their latest project as we drift off to sleep, we know we can find that on broadcast TV (or, more realistically these days, on YouTube the next morning). Streaming services, on the other hand, are for bingeing — the whole point is that we go to them because they offer us content on-demand, that they’re not beholden to constricting schedules or the demands of advertisers.

It’s hard, then, to feel like Wilmore and The Amber Ruffin Show aren’t being set up to fail. The fact that Peacock’s parent company NBCUniversal is getting behind them at all is fantastic, but why relegate them to the streaming service instead of putting them on the network itself? Why not truly shake up the white boy’s club that is late-night TV and put them where they have a chance to succeed, instead of tossing them into the shark-infested waters of streaming? The argument, of course, is that there’s limited space on broadcast networks in late night. But both Wilmore and The Amber Ruffin Show are shorter and much less frequent than traditional hour-long, nightly talk shows. You’re telling me NBC can’t find one hour a week to air both half-hour shows? Do we really need a second hour of Dateline on Friday nights more than this?

Peacock has reeled in just 15 million subscribers since it launched this summer (Netflix, by comparison, has roughly 183 million), and while the company’s hopes and expectations are obviously for it to continue to grow, it still feels like a missed opportunity to not put these shows somewhere where people will actually watch them.

Of course, on the other hand, being the scrappy underdog of the streaming world might be removing some pressure and encouraging the service to get experimental and take chances others won’t. This week, Peacock debuted two original news programs — another genre of programming that doesn’t tend to perform well on streaming service — from Medhi Hasan and Zerlina Maxwell. “News is a key differentiator for Peacock and we’re excited to bring more original and popular news programming to the platform,” Peacock’s SVP of topical programming and development Jen Brown said in a statement at the time of the announcement. “We will continue to expand news content on Peacock with a focus on aggregating varied perspectives and diverse voices.”

Again, that is to be commended, but it’s hard not to feel like limiting these shows to streaming instead of finding a home for them on one of NBCUniversal’s many channels is kicking their legs out from under them. Of course, I hope I’m wrong and they succeed in both diversifying late-night and news programming and unlocking the secret to the genre’s success on streaming — that a year, five years, a decade from now, this article sounds as outrageous as the fact that it took six whole decades before a Black woman was hired to write for a late-night talk show.

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