Forget Diversity: Saturday Night Live Has a Viewership Problem

If a show amps up its diversity and people aren't there to see it, does it matter?

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Ordinarily, a new Saturday Night Live cast member wouldn't capture national attention, but when that cast member is one of only a handful of black women to join the show in 40 years, people take notice. After months of public pressure and a well-publicized casting process, Sasheer Zamata will make her debut this weekend. Interest in the new hire has been running high, but Nielsen figures show that interest in actually sitting down and watching SNL has fallen to nearly all-time lows.

NOTE: Starting on Dec. 25, 2006, figures include live viewing plus any time-shifted viewing within the same day (such as recording the show on TiVo and watching it later).

Source: Nielsen

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The numbers above show both the share of total households that were tuned into the show (a measure known as the "rating") and the share of TVs that were in use during SNL's time slot that were tuned in (the "share"). That means that, of all TVs that were on late on a Saturday night during the 1978-79 season, nearly 4 in 10 were tuned into SNL. Thus far this season, that share is at only 9 percent.

What has pushed these figures down? In part, the proliferation of cable (and therefore alternatives for late-Saturday viewing) has eaten into the show's popularity, says Nick Marx, assistant professor of media studies at Colorado State University and editor of the 2013 book "Saturday Night Live and American TV." In addition, online SNL viewing options like Hulu have pulled people away from their TV sets.

But these numbers also suggest that SNL simply doesn't have the culturally central place that it once did. It's not simply that people aren't watching as much TV; among those who do, far fewer are watching SNL.

"Its relevance is relatively limited, as is a lot of broadcast television nowadays, given the abundance of competition it has," Marx says. "Its dwindling numbers are a little more of a result of that than any shift in cast or funniness from season to season."

If SNL has indeed shrunk as a cultural force, the phenomenon then raises a question akin to the age-old problem of the tree falling in the forest: if SNL pushes for more diversity and no one is there to watch, does it matter?

In Marx's opinion, the public is still "really invested in the show and its diversity" for two main reasons. One is that the long-running show has a prominent place in American culture but has not reflected that culture in its cast.

"It's had a really bad history of diversity, especially among African-American and female comedians, going all the way back to John Belushi famously saying women weren't funny, to the present day when they made really sort of a PR push to make sure people knew they were looking for a black female cast member," says Marx.

People pay attention, he says, to see if that will change, but they also pay attention to the show because it is both live and timely. The fact that the show covers current political and cultural issues – and does it on the anything-can-happen high wire of live TV – is also a draw.

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Despite declining viewership, the show still carries considerable societal weight because of that timeliness. For example, though the show's ratings had fallen considerably by 2008, Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonation became ubiquitous.

The show's ability to maintain that kind of cultural cache is thanks in part to SNL's online presence, Marx adds.

"I personally think it's working to its advantage if, even if its live broadcast numbers are dwindling, that its cultural footprint seems to be at least the same and possibly growing through online media," he says.

That means anyone who doesn't watch Zamata's debut live can rest assured that there will be at least one clip on their Facebook feed come Sunday.

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