CBS named Stephen Colbert to succeed David Letterman as host of “The Late Show,” handing the reins of its flagship latenight program to a cable host who has found success in attracting young male viewers by playing a character, rather than himself.
The decision comes about a week after Letterman announced during a taping of his program that he would retire from the program – and the longest tenure as a latenight host on broadcast TV – sometime in 2015. In doing so, Letterman will turn the time period over to an entirely new generation of hosts, severing TV’s last link to the days when Johnny Carson dominated the daypart. These days, latenight is a splintered environment, with three broadcast programs as well as wee-hours bastions in place on Viacom’s Comedy Central, Time Warner’s TBS and NBCUniversal’s Bravo and E!
When Colbert sits behind the desk of the CBS program, as he is set to do at a currently undetermined date in 2015, he will likely do it with a new presentation - not as the right-wing caricature he plays in his current perch on Comedy Central. CBS said creative elements, producers and even the location of the show will be announced at a later date. “He is not going to play that character,” said Nina Tassler, chairman of CBS Entertainment, in an interview.
And yet, it is Colbert’s inventiveness CBS is likely banking on to help it gain in the ongoing late-night wars. “It has usually been our policy that when you hire the right person, you let them be creative and let them do their job,” said Tassler. “We are extremely excited about what he’s going to bring to the time slot.”
Colbert will be the Eye’s entry into a race that has already started. Both ABC and NBC have already turned their latenight programming over to younger hosts – Jimmy Kimmel for the Alphabet and Jimmy Fallon at the Peacock. Colbert will have to hit the ground running, mastering a broadcast venue that demands mainstream appeal while trying to maintain the current fan base that has made his “Colbert Report” a mainstay for the Viacom-owned network.
But his appeal to younger viewers is hard to ignore. Viewers of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” had a median age of 41.9 in the last seven weeks, according to Nielsen. Meantime, the median age of “Tonight Show” viewers since the Jimmy Fallon-led version has launched is 53.3, while that for viewers of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel” is 55.8. Colbert will have to build his base, however: In the last seven weeks, “Colbert Report” attracted an average of 633,000 viewers between 18 and 49, the demographic most coveted by advertisers, according to Nielsen. Fallon’s “Tonight Show” lured an average of 2 million, while “Kimmel” attracted an average of 852,000 and Letterman’s “Late Show” notched an average of 710,000.
Tassler kept any thoughts what Colbert’s “Late Show” might look like to a minimum. “It’s really important he be given the opportunity to develop and create his show,” she said.
While one might think CBS would have had conversations with various Letterman replacements prior to the current “Late Show” host’s decision last week, Tassler said CBS only reached out to Colbert once the “starting gun” of Letterman’s desire to retire was clear. “One name just stood out above the rest,” said Tassler. She cited his background in the Second City improv comedy troupe and his “extraordinary intellect” as factors in his appeal to CBS executives.
“Stephen Colbert is one of the most inventive and respected forces on television,” said Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS, in a prepared statement. “David Letterman’s legacy and accomplishments are an incredible source of pride for all of us here, and today’s announcement speaks to our commitment of upholding what he established for CBS in late night.”
“Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career,” said Colbert in a statement. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead.”
In a statement, Letterman blessed the succession: “Stephen has always been a real friend to me. I’m very excited for him, and I’m flattered that CBS chose him,” Letterman said. “I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.”
The current incarnation of “The Late Show” is owned and produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company, but ownership of the show and the name will be CBS’ once the transition is made, Tassler said.
She declined to speak in great detail about the potential future of Craig Ferguson, who has been holding forth at 12:37 a.m. after “The Late Show” since 2005. CBS has been looking at its latenight schedule “one hour at a time,’” Tassler said. “We have a very good relationship with him. He’s our 12:30 guy.” She declined to comment on whether the host would stay with CBS or move on, given the Colbert decision.
According to people familiar with the situation, Ferguson’s discussions with CBS continue and he has not decided whether to stick with his show or leave. The host is supposed to tape two episodes of his show today and is likely to address the issue in the one set to air tonight, these people said. In a tweet, Ferguson congratulated Colbert and said, “Welcome to the CBS funhouse.”
Comedy Central is expected to take some time to devise a replacement for “Colbert Report,” which, given its focus on a character originated by its host, cannot continue. According to a person familar with the situation. a bevy of options are up for consideration, including creating a new program with talent from “The Daily Show,” the 11 p.m. mainstay that precedes “Colbert Report,” giving the slot to “@midnight,” the new program hosted by Chris Hardwick recently launched at 12 a.m.; or something new entirely.
“Comedy Central is proud that the incredibly talented Stephen Colbert has been part of our family for nearly two decades,” the network said in a statement. “We look forward to the next eight months of the ground-breaking Colbert Report and wish Stephen the very best.”
In his perch on Comedy Central, Colbert has proven more willing to embrace advertisers than many of his peers, devoting minutes-long segments to discussions of PepsiCo’s Doritos or Mondelez International’s Wheat Thins. At the same time, he makes fun of the products, and not always in a good-natured way. Will CBS let the practice continue? “That’s a bridge we’ll cross at some later point,” said Tassler.
One question CBS will have to answer sooner rather than later: Once he’s out of character, will Colbert start to pronounce the “t” in his last name, long silent in the title of his satirical Comedy Central show?