Why Do Late-Night Talk Shows Start at 11:35 p.m.?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Press the menu button on your cable remote and you’ll see the schedule lineup in a neat grid. Almost all TV shows start on the hour or half-hour, and this has been the case since the early days of television—with one notable exception: late-night talk shows on the big broadcast networks. Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel all begin at 11:35 p.m. eastern time, and the shows that follow them also begin a few minutes after the half-hour. These are virtually the only shows on American television that begin at a time not ending with a zero. How did late-night shows get these irregular time slots?

You can partially blame Saddam Hussein.

At the start of the 1990s, affiliates “had been clamoring … to grab more time away from the networks,” Bill Carter—a former TV writer for The New York Times and author of The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night and The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy—tells mental_floss via email.

Local TV stations, which contract for programming from national networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC, wanted more airtime for their newscasts. Carter says there was special pressure on NBC, because they demanded more time from their local stations during late-night hours for national broadcasts. To be an NBC affiliate at that time meant dedicating two hours every weeknight to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. While CBS, ABC, and Fox had some programming after 11 p.m., there was no block of late-night TV as permanent and unshakable as NBC’s.

“Some NBC stations were pushing the idea of moving The Tonight Show [to midnight],” Carter says, “which might have killed the franchise.”

When the first Gulf War began in the summer of 1990, the affiliates intensified their campaign for more news time, insisting they had to cover the conflict. NBC acquiesced by temporarily moving the start of its late-night block from 11:30 p.m. to 11:35 p.m. But once the local stations had those five precious minutes, they didn’t want to give them back.

Johnny Carson, who had hosted The Tonight Show for nearly 28 years at that point, was infuriated over the bump. "He understands the TV business and knows you never get that time back," Carter says of Carson's thinking at the time. "He fears the next move will be an 11:45 p.m. start and then midnight." But since Carson had been planning to retire in a couple of years, "he let it happen without real protest."

Once NBC gave its affiliates an extra five minutes for newscasts, the other networks followed suit. CBS didn’t want to seem like it was offering its affiliates a rawer deal, so when David Letterman began his Late Show on the network in 1993, CBS slotted the program at 11:35 p.m. ABC also slid its news show Nightline to 11:35 p.m. and moved Jimmy Kimmel Live! to that time slot in 2013.

A standard was set for the big networks, and it helped broaden the late-night landscape. "This open[ed] an opportunity for cable, which starts its late night at 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.," Carter says, "creating the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert phenomenon, as well as [Cartoon Network's] Adult Swim." Starting in the early 2000s, those cable lineups managed to chip away at the big networks' once-unassailable ratings leads.

So, ultimately, Johnny Carson had the last laugh.

What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

iStock.com/dusipuffi
iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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