Whether you never miss an episode or haven’t watched since the 90s, there’s no denying that Saturday Night Live is a pop culture phenomenon that picks up extra steam during election years. With COVID cutting short Season 45 and the contentious 2020 election taking place amidst the start of Season 46, the return of Saturday Night Live with a live, though limited, studio audience was well received – at least when considering viewership numbers.
When Season 46 premiered in October 2020 with Chris Rock hosting, viewership was 34% higher than the Season 45 premiere in September 2019, as well as the Season 45 finale in May 2020 (filmed by cast members at home in quarantine). Whether this increased viewership was the return to in-studio episodes, the popularity of the actor, comedian and former SNL cast member, or the looming election, it’s hard to know for sure. That said, let’s dive into our data and see what we can learn.
Dave Chappelle saw the most tune-ins of the season with 6.6M households watching – that’s nearly double the number of the next closest host. Chappelle hosted SNL the weekend after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, his second foray into post-election hosting (his first time was in November 2016). In fact, the only TV shows (Live + Same Day) that had higher viewership that day (November 7, 2020), aside from a Clemson / Notre Dame football game, was election coverage on CNN and Fox News.
Bringing in the second highest viewership numbers was Season 46’s most controversial host, Elon Musk. 3.4M households tuned in to watch him try his hand at live comedy. While viewership was high for the Elon Musk show, the price of his favorite cryptocurrency plummeted during his appearance. Here’s a second-by-second look at the price of Dogecoin during the episode.
Chris Rock’s season premiere hosting duties snagged the third highest viewership with 3.1M households tuning in. Rounding out the top 5 hosts by viewership were Adele (one of only 2 women to make the top 10, the other being Issa Rae) and John Mulaney (who also hosted during the previous season with his Season 46 episode seeing 8% higher viewership).
Aside from Musk, the top five hosts by viewership all hosted within six weeks of the season premiere and coincided with election coverage, and more specifically, Jim Carrey’s stint playing Joe Biden. While Carrey’s portrayal of Joe Biden was divisive, the six episodes that featured the character were (along with Elon Musk’s controversial episode) the most-watched episodes of the season.
The episode with the lowest viewership of the season was hosted by former cast member and oft guest star Maya Rudolph, bringing in 2.1M households. This showed that bringing back former cast members to host doesn’t always lead to higher viewership. Sure, Chris Rock brought in big numbers in Season 46, as did Eddie Murphy during his highly anticipated Season 45 episode. But even SNL all-star Will Ferrell, who hosted during the first half of Season 45, saw sub-par viewership compared to the rest of that season (34% lower than Eddie Murphy).
However, one influence on the episodes with the lowest viewership in Season 46 may have nothing to do with the hosts at all. Maya Rudolph's episode, along with the one hosted by Daniel Kaluuya, fell during the March Madness basketball tournament – Rudolph during The Sweet 16 and Kaluuya during the Final Four. In both instances, the basketball tournament, which was cancelled the previous year due to COVID, was the most watched TV (Live+Same Day) of either day.
That said, of the five Season 46 hosts with the lowest viewership numbers, three were women. And when considering the show’s primary demographic that isn’t all that surprising.
Regardless of host, the average viewer of SNL skews older, white, and male. All episodes over-indexed for households with male viewers. Nearly every episode saw households with white viewers tuning in at a higher rate than viewers of any other ethnicity (the only exception being Elon Musk’s episode, which over-indexed the most in households with Asian viewers). And all episodes over-indexed for households with viewers over the age of 45.
When you look at the breakout of the hosts, there seems to be a lot of overlap. Half of the hosts were over 40 at the time of hosting, more than half (65%) are white, and a majority (65%) are male. In fact, only one host is Hispanic (Anya Taylor-Joy who identifies as a white Latina), and none are Asian. And, in terms of representation, only one host of the 20 is openly part of the LGBTQ community.
And this representation issue is also seen within the show’s cast. Fan-favorite Bowen Yang, whose portrayal of the “Iceberg that sank the Titanic” is already iconic, is the first Chinese-American cast member and only the third openly gay male cast member in the nearly 50 year history of the show. Season 46 addition Punkie Johnson is only the second openly gay woman (the other being SNL all-star Kate McKinnon), and the first queer Black woman in the show’s history.
With more representation, perhaps more diverse viewers will start tuning in. After all, while the series viewership skews overwhelmingly white, more households with Black viewers do tune in when there’s a Black host. The only episodes where households with Black viewers made up more than 11% of the audience were the episodes hosted by Chris Rock, Issa Rae and Dave Chapelle. And, if our study on how representation drives viewership is any indication, viewers are more likely to watch shows where they see themselves represented.
How will Season 47 stack up? With rumors swirling around which popular cast members may have made Season 46 their last, only time will tell.