During this year’s Super Bowl telecast, Stephen Colbert held forth in a glitzy commercial, and proved himself to be quite the pistachio salesman. Soon, he’ll have a bigger nut to crack.
At some point in 2015, Colbert will inherit the desk at CBS’ “Late Show” from David Letterman — and take on the burden of helping the Eye poke its rivals in the latenight wars.
He’s getting a delayed start in the race against his primary competition on NBC and ABC, but he enters with two key advantages: a strong following among young men, and a track record of weaving successful (and funny) brand integrations into his show.
Colbert’s segue to CBS completes the youth movement in latenight sparked in early 2013 by ABC’s decision to move “Jimmy Kimmel Live” up to the big leagues of the 11:35 slot in early 2013. NBC countered by installing Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show” in February. And then there are the niches, most of them younger skewing, mined by latenight players across the cable dial, from E!’s “Chelsea Lately” (although she’s been making noise about leaving) to TBS’ “Conan” to Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live.”
In Colbert, CBS gets a branded property, but the move is not without risk. The comic is a well-regarded font of laughs, but he achieved this status by playing a character, not functioning as a mainstream latenight voice. His bloviating right-wing talkshow host is not the persona that will greet viewers on his new show. What he might do after the late local news, and how far he’ll stray from the existing “Late Show” formula, is anyone’s guess, largely because CBS execs have so far kept thoughts on creative execution close to the vest.
“He’ll get huge sampling and heavy promotion from CBS, but we still don’t know the exact format of the show,” said Billie Gold, vice president and director of buying and programming research at ad-buying firm Carat.
CBS is willing to roll the dice on Colbert because of his popularity among the younger end of the 18-49 viewer spectrum, not to mention his ability to lure viewers with higher income than those who tune in elsewhere ’round midnight.
Since Jimmy Fallon’s Feb. 17 debut on NBC’s “Tonight,” that program has attracted a viewer whose median age is 53, according to Nielsen, and whose median annual income is $62,000. Yet during that time period, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” lured a viewer with a median age of 39 and a median annual income of $72,900. Sure, Fallon has attracted more than three times as many 18-49 viewers. But even if Colbert’s audience on CBS is smaller, the network may hold some sway among sponsors if the host can keep generating views from a monied crowd.
For CBS, it all takes on heightened importance, because with Colbert’s arrival, it will own “The Late Show” outright for the first time, in contrast with the lavish deal the Eye made with Letterman back in 1993.
Magna Global, the media-research unit owned by Interpublic Group, noted that Colbert should easily broaden the demographics of Letterman’s slot, with the show’s audience becoming more youthful and diverse. In early estimates, Magna called for “Late Show” under Colbert to improve 18-49 ratings by 33%, and as much as 100% in the adults 18-34 demo. The show could double its share of women 18-34, Manga predicted.
“Fallon has successfully lowered the median age and grown the under-35 audience for the ‘Tonight Show,’ but the median age is still in the 50s,” said Brian Hughes, who oversees Magna’s audience analysis. “I suspect Colbert will have a similar impact on the ‘Late Show,’ but it is not going to be drastic enough to drop the median age as low as ‘Colbert Report.’ ”
Colbert may have his competitors beat in another fashion. As latenight audiences continues to splinter, the networks have encouraged their hosts — even the flinty Letterman — to do in-show commercials for sponsors. Those are the kinds of deals that bring in premium ad dollars. Fallon recently announced he wanted to buy a truck, then selected a Ford after the automaker cut a broad advertising deal with NBCUniversal. Conan O’Brien gave viewers a 360-degree look at his set, courtesy of AT&T.
Colbert draws his advertisers into a tighter embrace, maybe even a bear hug. He has crafted entire “Colbert Report” segments for Miracle Whip and Wheat Thins, sometimes mocking the sponsors in the process. “Colbert” insiders say advertisers who want to get into the show must capitulate to Colbert’s creative process, and roll with the punches to make an impression on viewers.
In the hours after announcing Colbert’s appointment, CBS execs weren’t ready to commit to taking that same approach on “The Late Show.” “That’s a bridge we’ll cross at some later point,” said CBS Entertainment chair Nina Tassler.
But it’s likely to be an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation for the sake of keeping Colbert’s brand of comedy strong — and for attracting top-tier ad dollars.