Where's The Diversity In Late Night TV?

NBC debuted its newest show "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" on Monday. Fallon joins a crowded field of white male late night talk show hosts. Media critic Eric Deggans talks about the lack of diversity in late night television.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

Well, The Roots may be adding a new flavor to the music of late night, but as far as hosts go, vanilla is still the standard. All the hosts of major late night programs are white men. So when will Americans see some diversity in late night? Well, to try to answer this we turn to Eric Deggans, a TV and media critic for The St. Petersburg Times. Welcome to the program, Eric.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (The St. Petersburg Times): I'm glad to be here.

CORLEY: Well, there seems to be a formula for major late night talk shows, a host behind the desk talking to celebrities. So after all these years, why hasn't there been a change in either the style of the programs or the host of the programs?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, actually, there was a brief period where we had a lot of people of color hosting late night shows, but they were mostly syndicated and they were mostly developed as competition to the established network late night shows. Arsenio Hall had a show that started in the late '80s and went through the early '90s. And then Keenan Ivory Wayans had a show and there was a show called "Vibe." And Byron Allen had a brief show, if you can believe that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: I remember that show.

Mr. DEGGANS: So, you know, basically what happened, I think, was that Arsenio kind of showed that there was a way to capture a young audience by offering artists and actors that couldn't get on the really establishment shows. I mean Johnny Carson back then was old Hollywood and, you know, it was Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart coming on to tell old stories.

And so, of course, they weren't going to be featuring the people that were doing this new emerging music called rap. So Arsenio comes along and MC Hammer's on before he had "U Can't Touch This" and was a mainstream star. And Bobby Brown comes on, you know, when his first solo record was out before "My Prerogative" hit really bad, or right when "My Prerogative" became a big hit, actually.

And, you know, all of a sudden, these TV types realized, hey, there's a whole young audience out there that can be captured by doing, you know, urban, quote, unquote "black," you know, acts. And so then Leno takes over "The Tonight Show," Letterman moves to CBS, and all of sudden, those guys start booking Mary J. Blige and MC Hammer. And it's not unheard of for somebody like Kanye West or even The Roots to show up on late night shows.

And then, all of a sudden, you know, black late night hosts don't look so special, and they create these new shows: Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. And they start booking all those acts, too. And now there's no room for a black person to head a show because the networks are focused on developing these hosts that look like the audience.

CORLEY: Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about gender. Television, of course, a ratings-driven business, you have Oprah, though, and Ellen DeGeneres and the women of "The View." All of them have large followings. But in spite of those kinds of success stories, I was wondering if you thought the networks or advertisers just don't believe women can succeed in the late night format.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, I think it's, again, it's an example of hosts being advanced, who look like the target audience that the broadcasters are going for, for the most part. Particularly in terms of gender.

CORLEY: And you're saying that late night that they're not looking for women.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, no, I'm saying their target audience is young males. They'll take women, obviously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEGGANS: But their sense is that young males is the demographic that's most available at that time, and that advertisers most want to reach at that time. There's a sense that women, middle-aged women, are watching TV during the day. So that's why you see funny women like Ellen DeGeneres and Bonnie Hunt, they have talk shows during the day. They're not late night. Frankly, I think Bonnie Hunt, especially, would be better at late night.

You know, daytime television is a little soft for her. She's best when she has this kind of edgy showbiz witticisms. If you see her on David Letterman, you know, she's very sharp and, you know, she tells great showbiz stories, and they bounce off each other well. In daytime she seems a little neutered, frankly. And I would rather have seen Bonnie Hunt doing what Craig Ferguson is doing right now back in David Letterman at 12:30, but it wasn't to be.

CORLEY: Eric, we only have about 30 seconds. Who's going to be the person you think, you mentioned one person, is she going to break that glass ceiling in late night? Where's the person actually going to come from?

Mr. DEGGANS: No, no, you know, the musical chairs have already stopped. The music has stopped in musical chairs, and everybody's got a seat and there's no woman now that occupies it. Chelsea Handler on "Chelsea Later" is the only woman who really hosts a show at late night. It'll have to happen on cable or happen maybe on premium cable.

Maybe the female version of Chris Rock. Wanda Sykes, I would love to see her have a show and maybe, you know, she can make that happen in cable. You know, Comedy Central, if you're listening, you know, give Wanda a try.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: All right. Eric Deggans is a TV and media critic for The St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from St. Petersburg, Florida. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: And that's our program for today. I'm Cheryl Corley and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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