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Why Netflix’s Struggle With Talk Shows Is Proof The Format Is Dying

Maybe the late night talk show is a habit of older generations: people who don’t have Netflix and wouldn’t watch Michelle Wolf if they did.


It’s telling that Netflix’s strategy to boost “Chelsea” ahead of its second season involved deleting 66 past episodes. Nobody seemed to notice, and the show was canceled. (Take away 66 episodes of “Friends,” and there would be riots.)

The New York Times called attention to the massacre this week in an article on Netflix’s “talk show problem.” One vice president described the move as “an easy way for viewers to catch up before the new episodes launched.” And that makes sense: the task of picking up a new show is less daunting with fewer episodes, and each episode of a talk show can stand alone.

It’s confirmation of a point the Times raised, which is that “talk shows make for an awkward fit with streaming.” But why should that be so?

Netflix—and streaming services in general—are not yet functioning as direct replacements for traditional television. We still treat the platform differently. Sure, the option to open Netflix and tune into a regular talk show before bed exists, but people don’t seem to want that.

Maybe the late-night talk show is a habit of older generations: people who don’t have Netflix and wouldn’t watch Michelle Wolf if they did. Does that mean “The Tonight Show” will eventually drift off the airwaves? Maybe, although I think it’ll take longer than some expect for traditional television to fade away.

Streaming can still be an immediate, communal experience. Fans of popular shows binge new seasons as soon as they drop, but even then the process is usually a little delayed: some stay up late, some binge after work, some get three episodes in and finish over the weekend.

Maybe someday a sizable chunk of the population will queue up a new episode of “The Late Show” before bed every night. I doubt it, but if some comedian can give us a reason to tune in, who knows what’s possible? Given its appeal to younger viewers, would “The Daily Show” do better on Netflix than Comedy Central?

Streaming services don’t publicize their numbers, so it’s hard to say. The point remains that ambient content—like hours and hours of “Chelsea,” or regular but forgettable talk show episodes—doesn’t seem to work on Netflix. Do I think millennials fall asleep to reruns of “The Office” and “Friends” they’ve seen 20 times? Absolutely. All the time and money that went into Handler and Wolf’s shows can’t compete with those known quantities, offered just a click away.

This, of course, speaks to the death of the monoculture, to the “niche-ification” of our entertainment landscape. It means something that we’re headed toward a world with fewer shared daily experiences, although I’m still not sure what.

Netflix’s talk show problem also speaks to the narrower question of how we stream content, and what that means for the industry. People don’t seem intimidated out of nose-diving into tried-and-true content, even a glut of it. Some of Netflix’s talk shows are decent, but maybe the format was never the best use of our time to begin with, and the accessibility of superior competition is simply proving that.