CBS Moves Fast to Win New Ads for James Corden, Stephen Colbert

When Jimmy Kimmel launched his latenight show on ABC in 2003, he served his audience liquor and beer. In 2015, James Corden has done him one better: A miniature tavern is located directly on the set of CBS’ new “Late Late Show.”

Bottles of Rolling Rock, Beck’s, Michelob Ultra, Stella Artois and, no surprise, Bud Light and Budweiser adorn a four-seat “Bud Light Bar” seen on set every night during the program, which launched with Corden as host in March. On most nights, its presence is hard to miss. A neon Bud Light sign hangs above the bottles of suds and is easily spotted as the show comes back from a commercial. Sometimes, the bar serves as a backdrop for a sketch, such as when Dana Carvey did an impression of Michael Caine or in a segment called “Stage 56 Bar Tricks” that had one contestant jump rope while sitting on her rear end and another try to swallow a long balloon.

On other nights, the only shout out to the ersatz speakeasy is a black rectangular graphic at the end of the show nodding to the sponsor behind the alcoholic shout-outs: Anheuser Busch InBev. The company declined to make executives available for comment or answer questions about the deal that put its bar on Corden’s program.

Sure, Kimmel has become known for live ads and Jimmy Fallon has welcomed – and woven – Ford Motor and General Electric into bits he’s done on NBC’s “Tonight Show.” But Anheuser’s regular presence on CBS’ new latenight effort is eyebrow-raising, and not only because it makes a sponsor part of the program on a nightly basis. Opening a bar on the show is part of an aggressive maneuver by CBS to bring new advertising dollars to a time period in which it is launching new hosts – and when such things have not always been welcomed.

“Clients and agencies are interested in getting in on the ground floor and working with us,” said Jo Ann Ross, president of sales for the CBS network, in a recent interview. “We want to explore what can be done in the daypart.”

Already, Corden’s “Late Late Show” has featured the host taking pictures of his audience with a Samsung phone in a taped vignette shown during a commercial break. And he recently made use of Microsoft’s Skype video-messaging technology during a segment devoted to Father’s Day.

Corden and the show’s top producers, Ben Winston and Rob Crabbe, “are very hands on in terms of approving what feels right to them. They have been involved in first-time client meetings and internal discussions about partnerships and what makes sense and feels right for the show,” said Nick Bernstein, the CBS executive who directly supervises the 12:37 a.m. program. “There are always a lot of people involved in an integration, and ultimately, you want the right people to talk to each other.”

No one is getting drunk at the “Late Late Show” bar – the bottles of beer are not for consumption, though Anheuser makes some brews available for the show’s green rooms – but CBS has a new chance to drink up advertising ’round midnight. With David Letterman having retired in May, the network is no longer in the position of airing a popular latenight program owned by a different entity. Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company controlled both “The Late Show” and “The Late Late Show” while he was on the air, leaving CBS at certain times unable to offer advertisers full entry into the programs’ actual content.

Letterman’s program wasn’t impenetrable. In 2008, then-announcer for “The Late Show” Alan Kalter did a live-to-tape segment aimed at promoting Mazda, and Letterman introduced the vignette. In the final days of Letterman’s tenure, retailer J.C. Penney could be spotted as the sponsor of his famous Top Ten Lists.

In advertising circles, however, Letterman was known to be extremely guarded about allowing such stuff into his shows. Even Craig Ferguson, the last host of “The Late Late Show” during Worldwide Pants ownership, railed against such stuff. In 2007, Ferguson told viewers – in the middle of his opening monologue, no less – that he had to cut the segment short because CBS had experimented with moving more commercial time into the show’s first half hour to try to maximize so-called commercial ratings. In that year, that measure became the bedrock of how sponsors pay for commercial time. A day later, after fans challenged the move online, CBS said it would move things back to normal. Since that time, many of the latenight shows have changed their structures to accommodate more advertising in the programs’ earlier minutes, when more people are watching.

CBS can now exert direct control over its latenight fare. “We will own these shows for the first time, which will allow us to monetize late night in all sorts of new ways on a variety of emerging platforms,” Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS Corp., told investors in February.

CBS could stand to make more money off its latenight crop. In 2014, “Late Show With David Letterman” snared about $114.4 million in advertising, according to Kantar Media. Yet NBC’s “Tonight Show” in that year (hosted first by Jay Leno and then by Jimmy Fallon), took in $212.2 million. ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” nabbed $101.3 million. “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” snared about $36.7 million in 2014, according to Kantar. NBC’s “Late Night” (under Fallon and then Seth Meyers), secured around $67.8 million.

CBS takes over the programs as advertisers are showing more interest in wee-hours TV. During the 2015 upfront, when TV networks try to sell the bulk of their commercial time for the next year, pricing increases sought for latenight shows were more than what the networks tried to get for primetime series.

Many of the top advertisers in the time period have increased support. The five biggest spenders on latenight TV advertising in 2013 – T-Mobile, Apple, AT&T, Warner Bros., and pharmaceutical company Abbvie – all increased their spending on latenight last year, to $73.7 million from $42.1 million in 2013 — a major jump of almost 75%. “Latenight is the one area where ratings have been holding a little bit, and you can thank Jimmy Fallon for a lot of that, mostly,” said Doug Minetti, senior vice president and group director of national video at ad agency Deutsch. “There is definitely some renewed interest there.”

CBS is also quietly hoping to pair advertisers with Stephen Colbert, the popular latenight host who will sit behind the desk when the next version of “The Late Show” debuts September 8.

Advertisers loved when Colbert threaded Wheat Thins and Doritos into bits during his “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central as part of ad deals. The products were made part of his comedy, and fit seamlessly into the show. Behind the scenes, however, the process can be a “white knuckle experience,” according to one media buyer who worked with the host. Colbert is typically willing to hear what sponsors want to achieve, but he does not usually want them riding herd on the creative process. More often than not, marketers were not quite sure what they might see on the show when their products finally appeared. In a 2012 “Colbert Report” segment, for instance, Colbert actually lampooned guidelines Kraft sent him about how to promote Wheat Thins.

If Colbert is wary of advertisers, he isn’t showing it. During a party held in May for CBS sponsors after the network unveiled its 2015-16 lineup, he held forth for hours, taking “selfies” with and signing autographs for media buyers and clients. Corden did the same.

Through CBS, a Colbert representative declined to comment about the host’s view of advertising on the new program.

“The shows are new,” said Chris Simon, executive vice president of ad sales for CBS. “It is an open playing field and a work in progress.”

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