Column: Late night TV should look to diversity

Post-11 p.m. broadcast is ruled by the white comedian.

Last Thursday, late night television stalwart David Letterman announced that he would be retiring from “The Late Show with David Letterman” in 2015. Letterman has hosted the show since its inception in 1993 and has been in the talk show business for 33 years.

The 67-year-old cites his age and desire to spend more time with his family as reasons to hang up the microphone after three decades on air.

Media reports, though, point to competition with younger hosts (Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart) and the digital era as other reasons for Letterman’s departure. Not coincidentally, news of Letterman’s decision was broken on Twitter during the afternoon taping of “The Late Show;” a sign of the times.

As was the case when Jay Leno left “The Tonight Show” (both times), when Johnny Carson left the same show, when Jack Paar left the same show, and when Steve Allen left the same show, the universal question for “The Late Show” is: who’s next?

Actually, the covert version of that question is which white guy is next?

Allen left “The Tonight Show” in 1957 and was replaced by Paar. Five years later, Paar was replaced by Carson. After three decades, Carson picked Leno to replace him in 1992. NBC all but pushed Leno out to make room for Conan O’Brien in 2009 – although it did give Leno his own primetime show as a consolation prize – but poor ratings put Leno back in his “Tonight” chair in 2010.

O’Brien – who scored a $32.5 million buyout from NBC – went on to get his own show on TBS by the end of 2010. Jimmy Fallon, who originally replaced O’Brien on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2009, inherited “Tonight” this past February. Fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Seth Meyers then replaced Fallon on “Late Night.”

All men, as you can gather, are white.

As far as “The Late Show” is concerned, early frontrunners to replace Letterman next year are “Colbert Report” host Stephen Colbert and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. Former “Daily Show” correspondent John Oliver reportedly passed over replacing Letterman last year to sign a deal with HBO.

Again, more white guys.

Save for Chelsea Handler and Arsenio Hall – who Brian Williams couldn’t even remember was back on television – there are no people of color or women on late night cable and network television; Handler’s “Chelsea Lately” is ending in December after eight years.

While there is nothing wrong with any of the men currently on late-night television, the musical chairs of hosts is problematic when it comes to opportunities for women and people of color.

I wrote a column last week for The Daily Cardinal, a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, which touched on affirmative action in higher education. The basic argument was that affirmative action is more about opportunity and equal access for women and minorities than it is about just giving things to those groups.

In late night television, opportunity would mean actually considering a Handler or Tina Fey or Hall or George Lopez for a talk show desk. No one should just be given a show because they are a woman or black or brown, but show runners should be actively searching for hosts not named Jimmy. With reporting last month that Fallon’s and Meyer’s ratings decreased since their debuts, why not abandon the “if it ain’t white, it ain’t right” ideology and actually mix it up a bit.

At 67 years old, Letterman – and, to an extent, Craig Ferguson, another “Late Show” rumor host – is the last of the old men on late-night television. As David Bianculli wrote for CNN last week, Letterman is less about short segments that could go viral, like Kimmel and Fallon, and his ratings have shown that over the past few years. Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists or exotic animals can no longer hang with history of rap or making citizens look stupid on the street.

While Colbert or Stewart would provide a ratings surge for CBS, which is what these shows are all about, that would be taking the easy route. Although it took 19 years, and an appearance on “The Apprentice,” Hall is back on television because of CBS. Hall was the first black national late night television host in 1989 – Bill Clinton famously played the saxophone on his show in 1992 – and there have been a handful of black hosts since, with varying success. No person of color or woman, though, has had a shot at “The Late Show,” “Tonight” or the chance to create a show like Kimmel did in 2003.

Just as SNL had its issues with diversity before the hiring of Sasheer Zamata earlier this year, creating opportunities for non-white men is difficult when show producers – who are usually white men themselves – have personal networks that only consist of people who look like them (e.g. Lorne Michaels’ producing Fallons’ and Meyers’ new shows).

As Buzzfeed editor Shani O. Hilton wrote about diversity in newsrooms, talk show producers can take steps to improve diversity by evaluating the makeup of their professional networks, not rely on hiring “the best candidate for the job” from a limited pool, and evaluating the flaw in their systems that keeps producing only white men as hosts.

Hilton said diversity isn’t easy, so it is on the big networks to either take the easy route (more hosts named Jimmy) or work hard at creating access for others.

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