Inside NBC’s Plan to Make You Watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ Live

NBCUniversal and Lorne Michaels have been bandying about the about the idea for months, TheWrap has learned

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels has been in talks with NBCUniversal for months about one of the biggest changes to the show in four decades: an attempt to make more people watch “Saturday Night Live” live.

Michaels says the decision to replace two full commercial breaks of every episode with sponsored content “will give time back to the show and make it easier to watch the show live.” The hope is to integrate ads into the comedy, instead of interrupting it. But Michaels and NBC also want to stop slipping ratings.

The joint plan is based on a simple theory: Fewer commercials means less walking away from the TV, not as much channel surfing and — particularly for the 11:30 p.m. show — less opportunity to turn your set off and go to sleep. In other words: Bigger live Nielsen numbers.

Like almost every show on TV, “SNL” has struggled to keep viewers from recording it and fast-forwarding through commercials. Unlike almost every show, episodes of “SNL” can be consumed one skit at a time at a reasonable hour, via clicks not currently measured by Nielsen. It has an obvious advantage over scripted shows — part of the excitement is the anything-can-happen feel of a live show, which is lost in playback.

But “Saturday Night Live” has been getting roughed up lately in the live TV ratings — especially since ex-head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers left the show in early 2014 for NBC’s “Late Night,” also produced by Lorne Michaels.

The show may be suffering from a perceived falloff in quality, viewers missing Meyers on “Update,” or simply those aforementioned changing viewing patterns across all of television. Or all three. (Cast members leaving and claims that the show ain’t what it used to be are just part of the game with “SNL.” The show survives.)

From 2010-2011, “Saturday Night Live” averaged a 2.67 live rating in the key 18-49 demographic and had 7.107 million total viewers. The following year, it slipped to a 2.51 rating with 6.754 million total viewers — despite a presidential election, which would usually be big business for “SNL.”

From 2012-2013, the show settled for a 2.41 and 6.417 million viewers. From 2013-2014, it slipped to a 2.306 rating, with 6.407 million viewers. Then 2014-2015 (when Meyers bailed midway) happened, and the season’s original episodes plummeted to a 1.85 average rating and just 5.632 million viewers.

And that was even in the landmark fortieth season, capped off by the excellent “SNL 40” special in the spring.

NBC is hoping to cash in on the 2016 election cycle by unveiling its new sponsored content during the fourth quarter of the economic year.

But it has its work cut out for it. Just to reach its current point of stability, the aging show needed arguably the hottest political season ever, including the circus that surrounds Donald Trump, Larry David masterfully playing Bernie Sanders, and a few good Hillary Clinton cameos.

So, really, NBCU and Michaels are preemptively trying to prevent future viewership losses — or, dare we say, even spark ratings growth. Currently, too many people elect to catch each episode’s buzziest clips a few days later on the web, views not directly counted in traditional Nielsen ratings numbers.

Another bonus: Bigger bucks. We don’t yet know what sponsored content will look like — products worked into sketches? “Weekend Update” sponsored by a beer company? — but the implementation will surely will draw more money than a traditional post-midnight commercial slot would.

It might create challenges in the “SNL” writers’ room, as they try to balance the interests of corporate America and what was once a subversive comedy show. But there are perks, too. Stars and writers have long-dreaded the show’s legendary dress rehearsal, in which sketches they’ve labored overall week can be cut just before air.

But there is the question: Will viewers want to see the extra sketches?