“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?
'SNL's' 40 Most Iconic Characters: From the Blues Brothers to Stefon (Photos)
Spartan Cheerleaders: Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri got spirit, how 'bout you?
Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Alger (Dana Carvey): Party time, excellent.
MacGruber (Will Forte): Makin' life-saving inventions out of household materials!
The Blues Brothers, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd: Two soul men.
Stefon: Bill Hader never could keep a straight face as "Weekend Update's" New York City nightlife correspondent.
Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party: Cecily Strong's breakout character went away temporarily when she co-anchored "Weekend Update" for a season.
"Dick in a Box" guys: You better hope that Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake aren't your Secret Santas.
The Church Lady: Dana Carvey's character on making this list: "Well isn't that special?"
Matt Foley: Chris Farley's character may be iconic, but he still "LIVES IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!"
Sarah Palin (Tina Fey): Did this spot-on impression save "SNL" during a down period? "You betcha!"
Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner): "Weekend Update's" consumer affairs reporter had as much distaste for New Jersey as Richard Feder has questions.
Debbie Downer: Rachel Dratch's best character would surely find SOMETHING miserable about being considered one of the show's 40 most iconic.
Mary Katherine Gallagher: We know, Molly Shannon -- you're a superstar. So stop being so nervous all the time.
Haray Caray (Will Ferrell): "Cubs win! Cubs win!" PS, Wrap readers: If you were a hot dog, would you eat yourself?
Land Shark: Chevy Chase's deadly predator was most definitely NOT a dolphin, ma'am.
Roxbury guys: Before their movie, Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan clubbed hard on "SNL." One of their best sketches included host Jim Carrey.
(It's) Pat: Never before has androgyny been so much fun. PS: Pat was played by a lady, Julia Sweeney, if you didn't know.
The Ambiguously Gay Duo: Ace and Gary oftentimes found themselves in ... precarious ... situations. Now what is everyone looking at?
Stuart Smalley: Al Franken's "Daily Affirmations" character made our list because he's good enough, he's smart enough, and doggone it, people like him.
Dooneese: Kristen Wiig's "Lawrence Welk Show" character isn't much to look at, but she also can't sing at all.
Killer Bees: The Killer Bees have the distinction of being the first recurring characters on "Saturday Night Live" -- and they came back A LOT, mostly to spite network brass.
"Celebrity Jeopardy!" gang: You can't pick one: Alex Trebek (Will Ferrell), Burt Reynolds (Norm Macdonald) and Sean Connery (Darrell Hammond) were magic when they got together.
Gumby: Eddie Murphy is Gumby, damnit! Sorry Pokey, you didn't make the cut.
The Ladies Man: Tim Meadows' character liked the fairer sex even more than he dug Courvoisier -- and we loved him for that.
The Gap Girls: Chris Farley, David Spade and Adam Sandler always had fun when they got together. Add cross-dressing and mall food court gossip and it gets even better.
The Festrunk Brothers: Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd's "Wild and Crazy Guys" birthed those Roxbury guys we talked about earlier. Know your history, kids!
Bill Swerski's Superfans: These Chicago sports fans love Da Bulls and Da Bears as much as they love bear and Polish sausage. Seen here with their cherished Michael Jordan.
The Continental: Christopher Walken's recurring character was really forward with the ladies. He may have lacked game, but was never short on ascots.
Hans and Franz: The Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon duo were here to pump people up way before Aaron Rodgers and State Farm Insurance ever entered the power-lifting fray.
Samurai Futaba: John Belushi's samurai skills didn't translate to many other professions, most-notably working as an accountant and in a delicatessen.
Coneheads: The Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman family were not of this Earth -- and you would have never noticed if not for their accents.
Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer: Ladies and gentlemen, this classic Phil Hartman character was just a caveman -- things in our modern world frighten and confuse him.
Richard Layer: Rob Schneider's Richmeister was thrilled anytime someone in his office needed to use the Xerox machine. He had as many nicknames for his colleagues as they made copies.
Father Guido Sarducci: Don Novello was a writer for "SNL," where he famously brought the chain-smoking, tinted-glasses-wearing priest. Though the show popularized the character, it wasn't the origination point for Father Guido.
Jack Handey: Jack Handey was the real name of a real "Saturday Night Live" writer who had real funny "Deep Thoughts" during the 1990s.
George W. Bush (Will Ferrell): "SNL" was carried for several years by Ferrell, whose George W. Bush impersonation was so popular that he scored a successful and critically acclaimed one-man show on Broadway.
Mister Robinson: Eddie Murphy's play on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was meant for adult audiences. Where Rogers' town was lovely in every way, Robinson's was terrifying, but incredibly funny.
Robert Goulet (Will Ferrell): Ferrell's Goulet was completely ridiculous -- complete with a catchphrase of just exclaiming "Goulet!" at random times to punctuate a sentence. It was also hilarious, handing Ferrell another well-deserved spot on this Top 40 list.
Irwin Mainway: Dan Aykroyd's sleazy salesman would do anything for a buck -- even it involved selling a Bag O'Glass to children at Christmastime. That kind of dedication qualifies Mainway as an icon in our eyes.
Mr. Bill: The clay character was constantly in danger over the course of his 20-plus show appearances. It's currently unclear if the figure lived long enough to come back for "SNL 40."
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Ahead of the big NBC primetime 40th Anniversary special, TheWrap looks back at the sketch comedy show’s most iconic, inspired and hilarious roles
Spartan Cheerleaders: Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri got spirit, how 'bout you?