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'SNL’ adapts to viewership decline

Since it first aired Oct. 11, 1975, "Saturday Night Live," otherwise known as "SNL," has been a staple in American comedy sketch shows. Over its 40-year history, the New York City-based show has experienced many ups and downs.

“SNL” Season 49 has received trending headlines: Major news outlets covered actor Jacob Elordi's debut episode; the "Euphoria" actor's appearance and performances by rising star Reneé Rapp, actress Rachel McAdams and rapper Megan Thee Stallion created tidal waves in the press.

With the public's newfound viewership and online engagement, many have questioned the show’s decline or newfound revival as a mainstream show. As late-night and live television programs lose viewership, many wonder if “SNL” runs the risk of cancellation.

Is "SNL" declining?

Over the past several years, "SNL" has received up-and-down ratings. In 2021, Season 47 saw a 35% drop in ratings from the previous year. The New York Post remarked that these ratings were similar to those of the final two episodes of Season 46, noting that it may be the start of a new normal for “SNL.” 

In 2022, in an article for The Wrap, writer Benjamin Svetkey pointed out Season 48's low viewership by stating, "The program's audience has been shrinking for decades: This season's premiere pulled in only four million viewers, making it the least-watched in the series' history." 

During this time, "SNL" saw some of its worst ratings. The episode featuring Oscar Isaac and Charli XCX received some of the lowest numbers in ratings and viewership of the season. 

The episode, airing in March 2022, received 4.4 million viewers compared to its year opener, on Jan. 15, which reached just over 5 million. This marked its fourth decline of the year and a loss of 300,000 viewers from the previous episode. 

Many broadcast shows have lost viewership to streaming services, and "SNL" is no different. In 2018, The Hollywood Reporter conducted a poll on why Americans switched to streaming services. The results showed that 56% of those polled deemed cable "unaffordable," and 47% said the same about satellite television. 

Who is watching "SNL?"

In a 2023 poll curated by Newsweek during the writer's strike, 50% of American adults said they do not miss "SNL" "at all." The rising generations are showing less and less interest in "SNL," particularly Generation Z. 

According to Statista, the most frequent viewers are those between ages 30 and 44. Of that surveyed population, 19% stated that they watched the program often, and 28% said they watched it sometimes.

The show's leading demographic tends to be those old enough to experience and remember the height of "SNL" in the 1990s. These viewers remain not only the target audience but the most engaged one. 

New comedians and musical acts

The departure of "SNL" veterans Pete Davidson, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong left the public wondering about returning faces and new additions.  

Some of their departures are for reasons disclosed to the public. McKinnon stated she left because her body was exhausted. Bryant has been working on numerous other projects that need her priority, including developing an animated series for Peacock. 

Fresh faces, new ideas and younger hosts may be "Saturday Night Live's" saving grace. New members include Cleveland native, actor and comedian Molly Kearney, who made history as the show’s first non-binary member. Other new members of the show’s diverse cast include Marcello Hernandez, Micheal Longfellow and Devon Walker.

Performances by artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Reneé Rapp have sparked younger viewers' interests and paid off in the past year. Many believe "SNL" is "getting funnier" by introducing new comedians and rising pop culture stars. 

While Jacob Elordi's appearance as host of "SNL" created a lot of social media buzz, his episode garnered 4,340,000 views. This is a 2,994,000 viewer increase from its previous Jan. 6 episode, with Ana de Armas, which received 1,346,000 views. 

While the buzz surrounding these rising stars is helping to keep the "SNL" name in the mainstream, it is not creating a steady source of viewership. This causes concern that "SNL" is being viewed as more of a platform for fans to see their favorites, versus "SNL" being seen as its own individual entity.

The content just isn't funny

While "SNL" rose to fame due to its hard-hitting nature, it seems to be lacking the opinions of the public. Intellectual comedy is something that "SNL" was known for, especially around major election seasons. However, many believe that the show’s political comedy is extremely lacking and even painful to watch. Many referenced Alec Baldwin's portrayal of Donald Trump as agonizing to watch. 

Some pointed out the political bias of "SNL," taking a liberal stance in some of their portrayals of conservative figures and, on the opposite end, making fun of the wrong things concerning the Democratic party. 

The show has also been critiqued for its lack of timely content. As recently as 2022, the show invited Dave Chappelle to host, even after his controversial remarks surrounding the transgender community. Shane Gillis, a former "SNL" cast member who was fired five years ago for making racist remarks, will host the show on Feb. 24. Both of these decisions received mixed reviews online. 

Controversial hosts aren't new to "SNL"; the serious stance that their fleeting audience is willing to take is. Audiences would rather view the content of people they have grown to love and respect based on their political views than support a platform they deem problematic. 

While it seems that the veterans of "SNL" plan to end the show at 50 seasons, there may be hope for more. With a growing, diverse cast, new creative freedom for writers and younger hosts, there is hope for the future of "SNL" yet again. There may be hope of making it to Season 100.


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