Samantha Bee's cancellation hints at tough times for women and POC in late night TV
Amid news that TBS has canceled its incisive news satire series Full Frontal with Samantha Bee after seven seasons, it's worth pointing out one thing: I have never felt Bee has gotten the respect or opportunities she should have in TV.
(Full disclosure: I was interviewed for a Full Frontal segment a while ago, poking fun at the idea that Trump and Republicans might devise some sort of fraudulent "October surprise" news story to hobble Joe Biden and Democrats going into the 2020 elections.)
Starting with her 2003 debut on The Daily Show – where she joined the program as its only female correspondent and became its longest-serving correspondent by the time she left in 2014 – Bee has broken a lot of ground in the news satire game.
At the time, I thought she seemed a promising candidate to take over the show when then-host Jon Stewart left in 2015 (much as I love Trevor Noah, who has done an amazing job as Stewart's successor and the current host, recasting it for a different generation of news parody consumer). Bee herself has said "it was awful" when Comedy Central made it plain she was never in the running to follow Stewart.
And while it was wonderful to see Bee get her own show in 2015 – becoming the most prominent woman to host a late-night talk show series, while spinning off impactful projects like her Not the White House Correspondents Dinner — in recent years, TBS hasn't seemed to know what to do with Full Frontal, moving its time slots around enough that even fans might struggle to keep up.
So it wasn't entirely shocking when Warner Bros. Discovery – a new company formed when Discovery merged with TBS' parent company WarnerMedia earlier this year — decided to cancel Full Frontal. The company had already halted development of new scripted projects for TNT and TBS, pulling the critically acclaimed comedy Chad hours before its second season debut.
The channel's statement on Full Frontal pretty much pins the decision on larger corporate priorities, not the show's ratings or performance. "As we continue to shape our new programming strategy, we've made some difficult, business-based decisions," read a statement given to me by a TBS spokesperson. "We ... thank Sam, and the rest of the Emmy-nominated team for their groundbreaking work."
But the fact that Full Frontal's cancellation is about a bigger issue, doesn't remove the sting of seeing the most prominent female voice in late night unceremoniously removed from TV, at least for now (fingers crossed Bee lands at a new platform which values her show more than TBS ultimately did.)
And her show isn't the only late-night program to give up the ghost in recent years.
Growing instability in late night TV
Showtime's rollicking late night interview show featuring the Bodega Boys, Desus and Mero, is dissolving – reportedly, because the program's two hosts have decided to work separately. James Corden will leave his post on CBS' The Late Late Show next year. And when NBC canceled its ultra-late night show last year – A Little Late with Lilly Singh, which aired at 1:37 a.m. – it didn't even replace the program with new original programming.
It seems the space for original content in late night TV is slowly shrinking. And it's happening just as women and people of color are getting real opportunities to join the party.
In a way, this is yet another story of online platforms eating away at legacy media. The young, college-age viewers who once made successes of white guy hosts like David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart are now glued to Tik Tok, Instagram and YouTube; current late night hosts carve up their shows for distribution through platforms which may draw nearly as many views online as viewers on broadcast TV or cable channels.
(Even the term "late night TV" feels a bit anachronistic, given how fans can now watch pieces of the shows online whenever they choose.)
Small wonder that CBS has already signaled its intention to experiment a bit with the Late Late Show's time slot after Corden leaves. But this ambivalence about late night comes just as new talents like Amber Ruffin, Sam Jay, Ziwe, Michael Che and Charlamagne tha God are getting their own shots to reinvent the form in a more inclusive way.
Cynics may believe the genre is already on its way out. But as a critic who watched Letterman re-invent the TV talk show by subverting it — much in the same way Jon Stewart revitalized the news parody show — I'm convinced there's still life in the old form. Particularly as women and people of color fill a larger space in the genre.
Gauging the future of late night TV
Some tantalizing questions remain. As women's rights become a greater issue for the midterm elections, will Bee land another topical show on a different platform, or utilize her talents as a producer and her production company to create something else? Will CBS try to fill Corden's time slot with a talent who can balance popularity on the broadcast network and online, or will it focus on finding someone who can reinvent the form altogether?
And can a talent like Amber Ruffin – whose show for NBC's streaming service Peacock has turned her into arguably the most successful new voice in late night – find wider exposure for her program somewhere on cable or broadcast TV?
My fingers are crossed that Bee, an Emmy award-winning host, lands well. But it's also important for the industry to recognize and preserve opportunities for the next generation of late night TV talent likely to expand the genre through reinvention and inclusiveness.
If only they get the chance.
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