Get in the ring, Stephen Colbert.

Armed with the promotional power of CBS, the erudite late-night host notched a big crowd in early September to applaud the launch of his tenure on the network’s “Late Show.” He even outmuscled ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who had been nestled firmly in the time period’s second-place slot, behind NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, host of the “Tonight Show.”

Three months later, the dust has settled, and the winners — and losers — in late night have emerged. While Fallon dominates the field handily (he’s won the last 10 weeks in total viewers), Kimmel has surged to rival Colbert among viewers between 18 and 49, the ones coveted most by advertisers.

Meanwhile, Comedy Central’s late-night pair — Trevor Noah at “The Daily Show” and Larry Wilmore at “The Nightly Show” — have suffered precipitous ratings tumbles in comparison with last year, when Jon Stewart and Colbert were sitting behind the desks of the programs in those time slots.

“When any host changes on any of these shows, it’s an opportunity.”
Rick Ludwin, former NBC exec

With so many contestants vying for attention ’round midnight, everyone’s going to get their hair mussed. Further complicating matters, late-night TV continues to evolve: an earlier time slot for Kimmel; a revamped late-night “SportsCenter” on ESPN; a vibrant new format in Chris Hardwick’s “@midnight” on Comedy Central; a traveling Conan O’Brien on TBS; and the ongoing school of young people drawn to Adult Swim.

The melee is bringing in advertisers in droves, said Vinny Merlino, associate director of national video at ad agency Deutsch. Demand for late-night commercials has been so high that buyers are having trouble getting the exact schedules they want. “It’s the influx of new or changing hosts,” he said. “Things are really shaking up,” so late-night seems more exciting than primetime.

Advertisers also know that late-night TV travels well on social media. “We have to figure out not only how we can be part of the on-air, but share in the conversation that happens the next day, two days later, or in perpetuity,” said Carrie Drinkwater, senior vice president of investment at Mediahub, part of the large Mullen Lowe agency.

If TV networks want to spark any shift in viewer behavior and vie for ad dollars, they must strike during a transition period like this one. “When any host changes on any of these shows, it’s an opportunity,” said Rick Ludwin, who supervised NBC late-night programs for decades. But the window is a short one, he cautions: Six months after a big change in the time slot, viewing patterns tend to grow more rigid.

Scenes From Late Nite
The hosts are battling it out for viewers in every demographic
118% Stephen Colbert’s increase over David Letterman in adults 18-34
70% Larry Wilmore’s decrease in men 18-34 vs. 2014 (he’s down 61% in women 18-24)
42.1 The median age of “Conan,” the youngest of all the late-night shows

Of course, tracking the ratings for late-night TV can be something of a futile exercise. According to data from Comedy Central, 40% of “Daily Show” content consumption now occurs on digital platforms, compared with 30% when Stewart was host. The network sees the show getting an additional 650,000 full-episode views per broadcast via digital means. Earlier this year, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told investors of parent company Comcast that 70% of the views of NBC’s “Tonight Show” were digital.

As a result, shifts in audience are being examined on a wider level. According to Amobee Brand Intelligence, which analyzes digital content engagement on more than 600,000 sites across mobile, video, Web and social, the first week with Colbert as host of “The Late Show” generated 73% more engagement than Fallon during the same frame. However, since then, there’s been 47% more digital content engagement around Fallon than Colbert. The host who has gained the most in this category since September is James Corden, of CBS’ “Late Late Show,” who is generating 58% of the digital engagement of Fallon — up from just 12% of the leader in September.

Amid the rough-and-tumble battle for eyeballs, what’s clear is that the hosts are staking out their territory: Fallon is the entertainer. Kimmel wields an edge. Colbert aims for the brain as much as the funny bone. Wilmore sheds light on topics the others won’t touch. O’Brien has become the dean of the format, burnishing a cerebral brand of humor. Noah could be the comedic news voice of a growing multicultural generation.

In that light, the hosts need to build appeal with their core viewers, and then work to branch out. For instance, Colbert may not be the most-watched host in the wee hours, but his “Late Show” nabbed 52% more viewers between 18 and 49 in the first nine weeks of the television season, which exclude Colbert’s first two weeks, compared with the year-earlier period, and snared 118% more viewers between 18 and 34.

“The show can be very successful and very profitable without having to worry about Fallon and/or Kimmel,” said David Poltrack, CBS Corp.’s chief research officer. Colbert is luring a well-heeled, highly educated viewership, he said. “As long as he can hold on to that audience, he doesn’t have to win the numbers(game).” In other words, in a time slot splintered by new hosts, Colbert has to trump David Letterman, not Jimmy Fallon — at least for now.

Consider that the new math of a changing late night.

late nite tv ratings chart
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