When Jon Stewart left "The Daily Show" in 2015, he had a modest but meaningful audience on cable TV. When he comes back next month, he'll find that in his absence, the show's audience has gotten much, much smaller.
And much, much older.
You can see the story laid out in two charts using data from Nielsen. "The Daily Show's" overall audience has shrunk by 75% — from 2.2 million viewers a night to 570,000.
And the age of the audience has skyrocketed because younger viewers are barely watching at all.
When Stewart left, the median age of his audience was 48.2 years old. Now it's 63.3.
It's not news that TV audiences have been shrinking for years and that younger people are increasingly tuned out of TV. And that the trend affects all kinds of viewing, but particularly in late-night.
You'd see similar struggles if you plotted the audience for Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel.
Still, this is one of those things where you can know this stuff intellectually — and still be shocked when you see it laid out.
On Wednesday, when I got these numbers from Nielsen, I asked someone who has spent a lot of time in late-night TV to guess the age of the Daily Show's audience today. He underestimated it by about 20 years. When I told him the real answer he texted back: "OMFG."
The other obvious caveat here is that "Daily Show" network Comedy Central, its owner Paramount, and everyone else in TV knows that their audience has been shrinking and aging. And they're doing their best to find those viewers on digital outlets like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.
For instance: I'm not sure I've ever seen Trevor Noah, Stewart's successor, on regular TV. But I've definitely watched a lot of him on TikTok — including off-camera interactions that are just as interesting as the stuff that runs on TV.
Same goes for NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which I watch almost entirely on my phone, in clip form. Younger readers may be shocked to learn that in 2006, NBC freaked out when the "Lazy Sunday" sketch from SNL went viral on YouTube, and demanded that the site take it down. (It's back there now.)
But even though that kind of distribution is the future, TV networks today still make most of their money reaching viewers on … TV. So to make this work, Comedy Central will have to hope Stewart can pull off a major, major turnaround.
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