Craig Kilborn’s exit from The Late Late Show throne in August created an opportunity to bust up the late-night network man-opoly by giving a woman a shot behind the desk. But with millions of viewers — and millions of ad dollars — at stake, CBS recently announced this list of finalists: Michael Ian Black, D.L. Hughley, Craig Ferguson, and Damien Fahey. That’s four guys. No women. Apparently network executives still think girls have cooties. Otherwise, why not let them in the tree house?
Easy Answer No. 1: Women aren’t funny. But Tina Fey and Amy Poehler behind SNL’s ”Weekend Update” desk make mincemeat out of that theory. ”There’s plenty of women who have great mass appeal,” says Lizz Winstead, who cocreated The Daily Show. ”It’s still this opinion that women are these old-timey stand-ups doing jokes about bloating and stuff.”
Which leads to Easy Answer No. 2: Late-night is watched mostly by the young men advertisers crave — and young men don’t think women are funny. NBC’s VP of late-night and prime-time series Rick Ludwin says, ”Our late-night shows attract more men 18-34. And advertisers pay a premium to reach that audience.” (Like a reported $200 million a year in ad sales for the top-rated Jay Leno.) Let’s check the math: This season CBS prime time scores a 61-to-39-percent female-to-male audience, but in the ”male-oriented” 12:30 a.m. slot they run…60 percent women to 40 percent men. NBC? 55 to 45. Hard to believe, but that tiny difference is enough to please advertisers desperate to sell beer, and cars.
There have been minor advances: Cynthia Garret had a short late-’90s stint as host of NBC’s Later; Whoopi Goldberg made a failed attempt at a syndicated show. But the only woman to make a major nighttime network break is Joan Rivers, first as Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host in the ’80s and then with her own short-lived Fox show (1986-87). ”Nobody’s going to take the risk,” says Rivers. ”Because if it doesn’t work, that executive is out and his wife has to go back to being a hooker.” Says Ludwin: ”I don’t think we’re chicken. We are in the business of attracting the largest audience we can. The fact is that over 50 years of late-night television, there has not been one successful late-night show hosted by a woman.”