Jon Stewart’s Struggles Add to List of Streaming Talk Show Flops

Jon Stewart’s Struggles Add to List of Streaming Talk Show Flops

Streaming services have already proved that they can produce Oscar-winning movies, Emmy-worthy dramatic series and high-profile live sports. But there’s one genre that the new wave of home entertainment platforms have yet to figure out: talk shows.

Witness the current stumbles of Jon Stewart.

His Apple TV+ show, “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” which debuted in September, has failed to gain traction in its first season and lags far behind its competitors on broadcast and cable TV.

Last fall, about 180,000 U.S. homes saw the show’s first episode within the first seven days, according to the measurement firm Samba TV. By the fifth episode, which aired in early March, about 40,000 U.S. homes tuned in, down 78% from the season premiere. By comparison, an episode in March of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” was seen in 844,000 U.S. homes, Samba TV says.

Stewart declined to comment, though the magazine Entertainment Weekly said the show is the No. 1 unscripted series on Apple TV+, citing sources. To date, Apple hasn’t disclosed any viewership numbers for Stewart’s show, which since its debut has aired on a sporadic schedule. According to Parrot Analytics, Stewart’s program is the eighth most in-demand talk show in the U.S., ahead of programs hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and James Corden and behind ones hosted by the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah.

“We are thrilled that ‘The Problem with Jon Stewart’ has resonated with viewers all over the world,” said Molly Thompson, head of unscripted and documentaries at Apple TV+. “The series has sparked complex conversations about critical issues, and we’re proud to team with Jon for season two and beyond.” 

Jon Stewart’s Struggles Add to List of Streaming Talk Show Flops

Stewart’s predicament is hardly unique. The list of successful, prominent comedians who have hosted short-lived shows on Netflix or Hulu already includes Chelsea Handler, Michelle Wolf, the late Norm Macdonald, Joel McHale and Sarah Silverman. Years into the streaming revolution, the classic talk show format is still struggling to adapt. One problem is that people often watch streaming shows days or weeks after the programming initially aired, making it difficult for hosts to rely on jokes pegged to current events, long a pillar of traditional late-night programs.

“A late-night-style show on a streaming service can’t be very topical because content based on the events of the day would seem stale,” said Joe Toplyn, a former writer for “Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” 

Another challenge is that increasingly streaming services want programming that can appeal to subscribers around the world. That may have contributed to McHale’s short run on Netflix, said K.P. Anderson, an executive producer on the shows hosted by McHale and by Macdonald. Anderson said his conversations with Netflix executives led him to believe that McHale’s show did well in North America, but they wanted more viewers in other countries.

Jon Stewart’s Struggles Add to List of Streaming Talk Show Flops

“If I had to point to one thing that makes it tougher, it’s making a global thing,” he said. “Especially a show like Joel’s, where we focused on American pop culture.”

Whereas broadcast TV networks have spent decades building and reinforcing a schedule that reliably steers viewers to their late-night talk shows, streaming services lack anything equivalent. 

“It’s all about building a ramp for the next thing,” Anderson said. “If I pop on Netflix, I don’t know what I’m going to watch half the time.”

Streaming talk shows that do catch on with viewers tend to focus on topics with long shelf lives, said Jason Kilar, who recently stepped down as chief executive officer of HBO’s parent company, WarnerMedia.

“There’s a long history of these kind of shows that have been so time sensitive and tied to this evening’s topic of jokes,” Kilar said. With John Oliver’s show, which airs on HBO and HBO Max, “it doesn’t matter if you watch Sunday night or Thursday night or a week later, it has great resonance.”

Stewart fans may have had a particularly hard time settling into a viewership routine. Stewart initially released episodes on Apple every two weeks. Then he took four months off. In March, he returned from hiatus and began releasing episodes once a week. Along the way, Stewart has poked fun at the slow rollout, saying recently that it’s “like I’m an Etsy store of shows, knitting each one myself.”

To judge by the program’s sluggish start, sticking to evergreen topics is no guarantee of success. Each hour-long episode of “The Problem” focuses on a single issue, such as gun control, race relations, the stock market or climate change. It opens with a meeting between the host and his producers. Then the gray-bearded Stewart, sporting a bomber jacket, delivers a monologue, holds a panel discussion and closes by interviewing a prominent figure, like former Disney CEO Bob Iger, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen or U.S. Senator Cory Booker.

Reviews have been mixed. After watching the first two episodes, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans wrote that its “focus on important subjects, explored with passion and compassion, makes for compelling viewing,” but added that much of it “feels like a stitched-together pastiche of items from Stewart’s old show and a few other programs he inspired.” In February, Variety TV critic Daniel D’Addario wrote the show’s launch “has not been what one might expect from the grand return of a superstar.” 

About 70 million people still subscribe to cable TV, where for 16 years Stewart hosted “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Stewart is now attempting to reach viewers from a much smaller platform. Apple doesn’t disclose the size of its overall audience of paying customers, but  the research firm MoffettNathanson estimates it has 12 million subscribers.

“There’s no doubt Jon Stewart made much more of a splash in public discourse 20 years ago than he’s making today,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs at University of Mary Washington and co-author of a book about late-night TV shows during the Trump era. 

Stewart hasn’t shied away from joking about his own relatively low profile on Apple.

“Thank you for watching but my guess is you didn’t,” he said at the end of the premiere episode. “You’re probably just going to look at aggregated clips of it somewhere, on YouTube, where you pirate ‘ Ted Lasso.’ You don’t even know how to get Apple TV, do you?”

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