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Letterman calls out gender inequality in late-night television

The retired talk show host points to a glaring feature of the late night talk show landscape – its lack of women.

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    Former host of "The Late Show," David Letterman, interviews President Obama in 2015. The retired host commented on the lack of women in the late night industry in an interview airing Sunday evening.
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David Letterman may no longer be a fixture of American television, beaming into homes across the country every night at 11:35pm. But the retired "Late Show" host still has something to say about the state of the industry.

“There should be more women, and I don’t know why they didn’t give my show to a woman,” he told NBC’s Tom Brokaw in an interview that will be aired this Sunday. His seat was instead filled by Stephen Colbert, best known before this as the host of Comedy Central's "Colbert Report."

That choice has proven popular, but it kept the reins of late-night in white, male hands.

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"No one has had more critical respect for the satire Stephen Colbert has done over the last decade than I have," says Jennifer Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News and author of "Reality Bites Back." "If it was going to go to a male host, Colbert is a great choice. But it is frustrating that it had to be a male choice – that there were no women seriously in contention."

The now long-bearded Mr. Letterman has been called out for his own role in perpetuating late-night's white male landscape. And despite the obvious gender gap – there is currently only one woman in a traditional late-night host role – the industry has begun to show signs of change.

The late-night television roster went through a major upheaval in a short period of time, with the departure of long-term hosts like Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Jay Leno in the past few years, and an infusion of new blood, from new shows like HBO’s "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" to a new generation of white, male hosts, like Jimmy Fallon, settling into the existing spots.

But 2016 has seen progress.

In February, TBS's "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" charged onto airwaves with a question: “Is it hard breaking into a boy’s club?” and a segment mocking how the media would focus on gender as the most important part of the comedienne's new show, not the content of the show itself. (Yesterday Ms. Bee and her writers were at it again, publishing a piece on Medium in reaction to media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s democratic nomination.)

“When you think about the women who have come before me in that space, it's such a small number of people,” Bee said of late night hosts in an interview with Mother Jones. “It's really unthinkably small. I just don't know why. I really don't know why,” she said.

Bee's show is not the only new step toward a more diverse late-night lineup.

Chelsea Handler, who hosted the entertainment talk show "Chelsea Lately!" on E from 2007 to 2014, launched a new show last month. Netflix’s “Chelsea” appears on the video streaming site at midnight, Pacific Standard Time, three nights a week. 

The issue of diversity in late night hosting hasn’t gone unnoticed. In fact, it's gone viral.

This past October, the topic exploded as a talking point on Twitter after Vanity Fair published an article celebrating the current crop of late night show hosts. The article featured hosts who “revitalized” late night — all male, and nearly all white. 

Racial diversity in late night received a boost in 2015 with Trevor Noah taking Mr. Stewart’s slot on Comedy Central in September and Larry Wilmore’s "The Nightly Show" moving into the time slot once filled by "The Colbert Report," in January of that year. Comedian Amy Schumer reportedly turned down an offer to host "The Daily Show."

Mr. Wilmore had appeared regularly on Stewart's Daily Show, often billed as “Senior Black Correspondent,” and as the only African-American late night host on-air currently – Mr. Noah hails from South Africa – he has said he feels uniquely suited to tackle race on his show.

Some hosts have talked about their efforts to add diversity and fight subconscious hiring bias as they build their teams of writers, another area where gender disparity pervades. John Oliver of "Last Week Tonight" reportedly reviewed blind submissions, with names blanked out, an exercise that yielded two women on a team of nine back in 2014.

Late night's male domination falls into a larger picture of inequality onscreen. Only 42 percent of all speaking roles in broadcast television are held by women, according to a study released last fall. That's still better than the 31 percent of speaking roles held by women in film, according to a 2014 study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

"It's great that David Letterman is finally talking about the virtual blackout of women's voices in late-night TV comedy, but it strikes me as somewhat disingenuous for this conversation to happen now," Ms. Pozner tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

"Letterman was one of the most influential TV hosts and comedians of the last 40 years. If he had wanted to pass his late-show legacy onto a female host, he absolutely could have wielded that influence in the decision-making process – or at least tried. To wonder after the fact why women weren't in contention as his successor is to pass the buck on a hiring decision he certainly could have had a voice in."

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