‘SNL’s’ Newsweek Problem — Too Late to Be Relevant

When is “Saturday Night Live” gonna get with the digital age?

Last Updated: March 18, 2011 @ 8:53 AM

"Saturday Night Live" has a Newsweek problem.

The show that kneecapped Sarah Palin's political career, perfectly captured George W. Bush's doofus charm and turned Bush 41's "wouldn't be prudent" into a national punchline is constantly playing catch-up in a hyper-adrenalized news cycle.

Much like the just-relaunched newsweekly, "SNL" is being outpaced by nimbler, more web-savvy upstarts such as "Funny Or Die,” which conceives, produces and publishes comic parodies of the news within hours rather than days.

Can "SNL" still afford to lampoon news on Saturday that breaks on Monday?

“’SNL' runs a risk when it does topical humor in this news cycle. They have to limit themselves to stuff that happened in the past 24 or 48 hours," Alex Weprin, editor at TVNewser, told TheWrap. "A lot of the timely sketches this season haven't been funny."

Take, for example, the March 5th show. Following a week dominated by Charlie Sheen's bizarre interviews, there was very little doubt what the cold open of "Saturday Night Live" would center around.

The sketch offered Bill Hader as Sheen, hosting a talk show ("Duh! Winning! With Charlie Sheen") that featured Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan (played by host Miley Cyrus), fired Dior fashion director John Galliano and embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi — all figures that provided late-night joke fodder the week leading up to the show.

It felt stale. Sheen's meltdown began on Monday, five days before "SNL" aired, and the jokes — while funny — would've been funnier on Tuesday, when other late-night shows, like fellow Rockefeller Center tenants "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," were exhaustively skewering Sheen. (Fallon delivered perhaps the best Sheen impersonation on Wednesday — starring in a faux-fragance commercial, Calvin Klein-style, for Sheen's "Winning" scent.)

Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer, was not available to comment for this story, and NBC declined to comment. But an individual close to the show said that "SNL"'s brand is that of a live program, and producers believe that releasing content to the web early might diminish that. 

"SNL" makes some of the most viral digital shorts out there -– “Lazy Sunday,” "Jizz in My Pants," “Dick in a Box,” Natalie Portman's foray into rap. So the timing of Sheen's meltdown's begs the question: Why does "SNL" wait around until Saturday to produce comedy?

The shorts take "SNL" as many as five days to write, shoot and edit. The show currently has no plans to alter its shooting schedule, although during the 2008 presidential election it did release special Thursday editions of its news parody "Weekend Update."

Compare that with "Funny or Die," which can produce an internet-ready product in less than a day.

"Timeliness is important and one of the things that distinguishes us. Where Democratic senators are Wednesday, or where Gaddafi is can change instantly, but what is disconcerting for journalists is fantastic for sketch comics," Dick Glover, president and CEO of Funny or Die, told TheWrap.

That might not work for "SNL." The three-decade-old show is filmed in front of a live audience, and that energy would be lost if the series piled up taped segments, according to an individual close to the show. 

To that end, the show's mandate is to comment on a week's worth of news, not just send up the day's headlines — something it leaves to late night comics such as Fallon.

When it works, as in the case of Tina Fey's lampooning of Palin's sit-down with Katie Couric, the show perfectly captures the zeitgeist. When it doesn't — well, just take a look at recent episodes.

"When 'SNL' succeeds, it kind of pushes the moment forward in a way. It crystalizes what was funny and weird about Palin or Al Gore's awful debate performance," Eric Deegans, a television and media critic at the St. Petersburg Times, told TheWrap. "The last couple of episodes feel like 'SNL' syndrome, where the concept is funny but it doesn't have anything to say beyond the original funniness."

Right now, "SNL" might lack the financial incentive to invest more heavily on digital productions.

Viral videos are great for generating buzz, but they don't always lead to premium advertising rates; in some ways, SNL is giving away something for nothing every time it has a digital hit.

To that end, “SNL” and NBC have changed the way they manage the show's viralness. In 2006, NBC pulled the Digital Shorts from YouTube, where they had been massively popular, in an effort to monetize them — or at least lure those searching for them to “SNL"s' website.

Over time, shifting the focus toward digital and away from purely broadcast may start to pay off.

"The ad revenue is nowhere near what they would collect on broadcasts. That may start to change though as Nielsen changes the way it measures ratings," Tony Wible, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott, told TheWrap.

That could be big money for "SNL."

The Emmy-winning “Dick in a Box,” for instance, was viewed more than 35 million times on YouTube before it was pulled at the end of 2006. And 2005’s “Lazy Sunday,” which catapulted Andy Samberg into stardom and gave birth to the term "viral," had more than 5 million hits.

Here too being topical could bolster viewership. Traditionally, "SNL" enjoys its strongest ratings during Presidential elections. A 2008 appearance by Palin gave the program its highest ratings in 14 years when 17 million viewers tuned into to watch the Vice-Presidential hopeful go face to face with Fey.

Barring that, "SNL" could always bring back Betty White.