It’s hard to find anyone who believes that Jon Stewart’s return to “The Daily Show” is a bad move for the storied late night institution — or for Comedy Central.
The comedian known for his biting political satire is on the Mount Rushmore of late-night greats alongside Jay Leno, Johnny Carson and David Letterman. His 16-year-stint sent the ratings of Comedy Central soaring and he was a powerhouse with advertisers.
But it’s been nine years since he sat in the host chair. In that time the show’s ratings fell off a cliff amid a broader decline of cable television and a lack of interest among Gen Z viewers.
The question of whether Stewart’s Mondays-only return starting on Feb. 12 can breathe new life into the show he made famous — and the network he carried on his back — is a complicated one. TheWrap spoke to former Comedy Central executives, analysts and comedy critics whose consensus was that Jon Stewart may be a potential Band-Aid for the network. But it’s a tall order, they said, to ask him to mend years of declining ratings, shrinking ad spends, the impact of an arduous public audition process and a dying television format that lives on the fraying embers of cable.
A ‘baller move’
“I don’t think Stewart’s once-a-week appearance has the ability to really move the needle, ratings wise, for the network overall, but it will likely give the show a decent bump on Monday nights,” Scott Robson, a S&P Global senior research analyst who specializes in economics of broadcast, premium, cable and regional sports networks, told TheWrap.
Still, some see Stewart’s return as shrewd strategy by Comedy Central.
“It’s a baller move,” said Doug Herzog, former president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, in an interview with TheWrap. Stewart’s return “doesn’t settle the question of what’s the long term for ‘The Daily Show.’ But I can tell you this: Jon’s arrival at ‘The Daily Show’ means that late night survives at Comedy Central for another day, that’s for sure.”
Herzog, who launched “The Daily Show” in 1996 when he was president of Comedy Central, was instrumental in picking Craig Kilborn, Stewart and Noah as hosts of the program. The executive noted that the climate of late night has changed dramatically since Stewart left Comedy Central. He’s not quite sure what the medium is anymore, or what its future may hold.
Stewart took over “The Daily Show” from Kilborn in 1999. He passed the baton to Trevor Noah in 2015, leaving with a final show that brought in 3.5 million total viewers — the second highest audience in the show’s history. But the ratings tumbled from there as Noah carried on Stewart’s legacy through 2022. In August 2022 “The Daily Show” averaged just 383,000 viewers, a 65% drop from its 2015 ratings, according to Nielsen.
Comedy Central and Stewart, who is known for keeping a small inner circle, have been relatively quiet about the details surrounding the decision to come back for one night a week.
Great for advertisers
Stewart was a ratings champ during his original run on Comedy Central. During its peak in 2013, “The Daily Show” saw an average of 2.5 million nightly viewers. That dropped notably after Noah took over the desk in 2015. Noah’s first episode was his most highly rated, bringing in 3.47 million viewers. The host’s initial season then settled in at an average of 1.1 million viewers per episode.
In the years that followed, his audience continued to shrink, averaging 383,000 viewers in Noah’s last year.
Last year’s round of guest hosts gave the series a ratings bump. The weeks helmed by Al Franken, John Leguizamo and Sarah Silverman’s first week were the most watched of the year, coming in at 792,000, 633,000 and 613,000 total viewers in live plus seven-day viewing, respectively. Additionally, the first round of guest hosts saw a ratings increase of 21% compared to the Trevor Noah era.
Of course, part of the reason for the Stewart-to-Noah dropoff had to do with the changing television environment. Streaming has greatly impacted cable and broadcast viewership. But the shift from Stewart to Noah also proved that Stewart’s fans showed up for him — and that matters to advertisers.
In 2014, Stewart’s iteration of “The Daily Show” raked in just over $127 million from advertisers, according to data from Vivvix, a MediaRadar company that tracks ad spending. He would bring in another $86.49 million in 2015 before passing off the reins to Noah, who brought in another $31.5 million for a total of $118 million that year.
In the years that followed, advertisers pulled back their spend on “The Daily Show,” which fell to a disappointing $12.7 million by 2020. It ramped back up in Noah’s final two years, topping $35.2 million in 2021 and $39.9 million in 2022.
Between January and October 2023, the show’s rotating slate of celebrity guest hosts and correspondents have brought in approximately $18.6 million in advertising spend.
“Jon Stewart is the absolute gold star. When Jon was hosting there wasn’t any advertiser who did not want to do ‘The Daily Show,’” Herzog said. His return “will create a lot of excitement with media buyers. Jon has a great fan base, and the media has always been in love with him and never fell out of love with him.”
Tara Schuster, the former VP of talent and development for Comedy Central from 2017 to 2020, told TheWrap that company leadership used to internally call the back-to-back showings of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert “the power hour.” “That was the most valuable real estate we had,” Schuster said.
Referring to Stewart’s return, she said: “From an advertiser point of view, it’s without a doubt the best thing to happen to Comedy Central… in the last 10 years.”
Comedy Central’s primetime ratings peak has fallen from a 0.87 in 2006 — a period that was in the middle of Stewart’s time on the show — to a 0.21 in 2023. Even though the network has made several cuts to its content during this time, Robson said that “The Daily Show” has “remained constant.”
Part of the loyalty around Stewart has to do with his particular brand of political comedy. The late night host became famous for going head-to-head against Fox News. One of his most beloved bits was his “Go F–k Yourself” choir, which he hired in 2010 to lambast Fox.
But Stewart never solely relied on wit alone. He popularized and perfected the art of research-intensive political comedy, a specific style other later night hosts such as John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj would later emulate. A particularly great example of this is Stewart’s 2009 interview with Jim Cramer. Every time the “Mad Money” host tried to duck having anything to do with the 2008 financial collapse, Stewart was ready with a clip from Cramer’s own show, refuting the financial personality with his own words.
“We’ve seen cable news anchors like Tucker Carlson leave cable TV in recent years and find sizeable audiences on social media, so the return of Stewart breathes some life into linear TV,” Robson said, also noting that Paramount Global president Bob Bakish likely hopes that Stewart’s return will increase subscriptions to Paramount+, the company’s streaming vertical.
The ‘embarrassing’ search for a host
Nearly everyone TheWrap spoke to agreed on one thing: The search for a permanent host has gone on for too long. Noah’s last night as host was on Dec. 8 of 2022. Since then Comedy Central has been conducting a long and very public search for a permanent successor, a process that involved auditioning various celebrity guest hosts.
The search “honestly got embarrassing,” Herzog said.
The network came close to giving the job to Minhaj, according to media reports. But after a New Yorker exposé questioned how the comedian portrayed truth in his standup, as well as his history of kicking writers out of the room on Netflix’s “The Patriot Act,” viewers and industry professionals questioned if he was right for the job. As a result, the network went cold on Minhaj, as TheWrap has reported.
“It is deceptively difficult to find a host,” Schuster said. “I don’t know how apparent it is from the outside what a totally demanding job being a host is.”
Schuster pointed to another factor that likely contributed to the lengthy search: the difficulty of breaking new talent on cable’s diminishing audience. “There aren’t enough people watching late night TV,” she said.
Some of that creative frustration has already emerged. During the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards, former “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. was caught mouthing out “hire a host” while onstage. Wood was present at the awards ceremony to accept the Emmy for Outstanding Talk Series, an award that acknowledged Noah’s last season on the show a year after his abrupt departure.
Wood, who was a correspondent on “The Daily Show” for eight years and long thought to be one of the Comedy Central show’s best talents, left the series last October.
But one expert said Stewart’s return was unlikely to ruffle feathers among other prospective hosts. “I would be surprised if there actually was bad blood,” Schuster said. “He’s only going to widen the audience, which means all the correspondents will have more exposure, which means it will be much easier to break one of those correspondents when the time comes.”
The future of ‘The Daily Show’
Say the best case scenario happens: Jon Stewart delivers massive ratings, saves late night television, bolsters Comedy Central and revolutionizes political comedy for the second time in his career. What then? “The Daily Show” is still a dying television format on a dying television medium that needs to connect to a wider audience in order to survive.
“He’s got a big following, it’ll come back,” Herzog said, noting that while Stewart’s audience skewed on the “slightly older” side, he is “not irrelevant” to younger people under 25. “He’s on a platform that’s irrelevant to young people, but I think Jon will bring his core audience back. Then the question is, as he navigates, what else can you bring along?”
Seth Simons, the journalist behind Humorism, the comedy insider blog, called the decision to bring back Stewart “messy” and “uncertain.” Since Chris McCarthy took over as president and CEO of ViacomCBS’ MTV Entertainment Group in 2021, Comedy Central has been targeting the under-25 generation, “which is not the generation that Jon Stewart is the voice of, with all due respect to Jon Stewart,” the comedy critic said.
“It’s like there’s no bigger strategy (other) than just getting the headline and maybe the early weight of viewers that an announcement like this brings,” Simons said.
As for Schuster, she opposed the “bad” idea of “endlessly pursuing Gen Z.” Instead, she praised Stewart’s return as a way to super-serve cable subscribers, specifically the “millions” of fans who used to watch Stewart on the program.
“To bring him back only activates your biggest base of viewers that you’ve had in the past 15 years,” Schuster said. “I am not even concerned a little bit about Gen Z or younger people, who are never going to be Comedy Central viewers.”
During his original tenure on Comedy Central, Stewart’s audience was educated young people who primarily skewed liberal. Fifteen years later, that audience has grown up to become Gen X viewers and older millennials.
There is reason to believe that Stewart’s audience does include some younger viewers. Last fall, a “Daily Show” clip featuring Stewart trying to talk about Israel while being drowned out by his correspondents went viral. The clip was viewed on X 5.7 million times and raked up over 97,000 likes on TikTok, a social media app that typically skews younger.
Another Stewart interview — a heated change about drag show readings for children and gun laws — also took off on the platform, accumulating 2.2 million views on TikTok. But Stewart’s previous show, Apple TV+’s “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” failed to get the same amount of attention as other late night shows, so it’s hard to know if Stewart has a significant audience of younger viewers or if these viral moments were one-offs.
Then there’s the problem of the permanent host. Because Stewart is only hosting one day a week throughout the 2024 election cycle, there’s a real chance that “The Daily Show” will be right back to hosting square one at the end of this year.
That’s where Stewart’s EP credit comes in. Though he’s only supposed to be the face of the show in 2024, Stewart will executive produce through 2025 with the possible option to extend his producing credit, an insider familiar with the contract told TheWrap.
“It would be very surprising to me if he wasn’t more involved in the show on every possible level,” Schuster said. “You’ll see him nurturing and helping setting up all of the correspondents to really break out.”
As for whether Stewart will pick the next successor as he did with Noah, that remains to be seen. Herzog remarked that Stewart has always been “great” at selecting talent, and that he would trust Stewart with “the whole enchilada.”
But he acknowledged that finding success in 2024 could be a challenge. “Much has changed since Jon left that seat,” Herzog said. “‘The Daily Show’ has changed, Comedy Central’s changed, the television business changed. He left before Trump too, before George Floyd, before COVID.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch him navigate this. But make no mistake about it: Jon Stewart is still the funniest, smartest guy out there, and I have no doubt that he will figure out what this version of ‘The Daily Show’ needs to be and make it work.”