Analyzing the recent decline in popularity of NBC’s Saturday Night Live
“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” It’s a familiar sound, well known to the thousands of American families settling in for a night in front of the television. From Obama dressing up for Halloween to Taylor Swift’s musical monologue and Pete Davidson’s “Chad” impression, it’s needless to say that Saturday Night Live is iconic. But, over the past few years, the show’s tremendous reputation has taken a turn for the worse.
On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live made its debut on NBC. It quickly developed a cult following; the show’s observational and sketch comedy appealed to the main demographic of the baby boomer generation. In addition, the show’s reputation as a stepping-stone to some degree of fame encouraged many up-and-coming comedians to join the show. Some notable performers that got their start on SNL are Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Amy Pohler, and more. That’s what made SNL different. The focus wasn’t on the celebrity appearances or the politics; it was about new faces on television, people that carried loads of talent that just wanted a chance to be heard.
In recent years, however, that focus has shifted, and the effects of that shift have clearly shown in recent ratings. SNL kicked off its 47th season premiere on October 2nd with one of the lowest ratings in the show’s history. According to reports from Nielsen, ratings for the show plummeted 35% from the last season’s opener, bringing in just 3.5 million viewers. Some attribute this decline to the rocky political climate, as the trademark SNL political sketches seem unfitting in the face of much bigger social issues. Others think it’s because of its loss of the show’s primary audience, demonstrated by a preliminary report from Nielsen showing a 13% drop in viewership in the 18-30 group from the last season. This could be due to a lack of young writers behind the show; Michael Che and Colin Jost, the head writers, are both nearing 40 years of age.
But, this drop in viewership could also be credited to the overarching fact that SNL is becoming increasingly irrelevant. SNL used to have the power and influence to decide what was funny and who would get careers and who wouldn’t. But, that was 30 years ago. In an age where a kid can simply pick up a phone and make a joke and wield that same amount of influence, SNL can no longer depend on using its name and reputation to maintain its popularity.
That’s not to say that the show has never had a rough patch. Over its 46 years on television, it has faced many obstacles, and the show has nearly been cancelled a few times. But, they recast and rehired, working through hurdles and coming back stronger. If we’re being honest, the show can probably afford to coast off of the celebrity appearances and the overused jokes for a few more years, but no one’s going to really notice or care when the show finally leaves the airwaves. If SNL wants to remain relevant in the eyes of the new generations, they need to make serious changes to their cast and writing team, or else, sooner or later, Saturday nights are going to be looking a lot different for many American families.