On most nights, the production crews of TV’s late-night battleships hunker down for a frenetic tug-of-war over viewers. Will you tune in to NBC’s “Tonight Show”? ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live”? Comedy Central’s “Nightly Show”? TBS’ “Conan”? Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live? Adult Swim?
CBS has its collective Eye set on a different target.
Rather than strive to win fans of Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel or Comedy Central to its recently re-launched “Late Show,” CBS is focused on what its top research executive says is a more dire threat: millions of viewers at home using the hours around midnight as an opportunity to catch up with primetime programming recorded on the DVR.
“The late-night picture is one where everyone’s number-one competitor is the play-back of primetime series,” said David Poltrack, who estimated viewership around that activity would dwarf that for the time-slot’s dominant host, Jimmy Fallon. “It’s not like back in the 1990s, when Letterman and Leno went head to head,” added Poltrack, who is chief research officer at CBS Corp.
CBS has a long-term strategy around “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert aimed at thwarting TV catch-up behavior – and if it draws attention away from rivals, so much the better. To keep viewers from binge-watching their favorites, CBS wants “The Late Show” to serve as a place where people can get jokes, but also commentary on the most-talked about political, cultural and social topics of the day, said Poltrack. “You want to have a show that people say, ‘I’ve got to watch Colbert tonight and see what he has to say about this,’” Poltrack said.
Poltrack articulated CBS’ plan as Colbert’s show enters a new, post-launch stage. The big marketing campaign is over, and promotional bottles of cold-brew coffee CBS burnished before Colbert’s first night on air have been emptied or discarded. After winning the second-place slot behind Fallon for a number of weeks, Colbert’s viewership has dipped and he has more recently been scrapping with Kimmel for the honor in the 11:30 hour.
Meanwhile, the people behind Fallon appear to have made a conscious choice to avoid weighing in overmuch on current events. To be certain, “Tonight” has booked relevant names ranging from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton and the host’s monologue lampoons the news of the day, but Fallon tends to engage guests in comedic sketches and banter, rather than grilling them for personal revelation or political stance. Where Colbert has addressed audiences about recent violence in Paris and in the U.S., Fallon has generally avoided offering personal musing on the headlines (though he once let actor Jonah Hill make an apology in 2014 about some ill-timed remarks made in the presence of paparazzi). If Colbert hopes to engage audiences in something thoughtful, Fallon continues to emphasize entertainment at evening’s end.
Colbert’s show “has a lot of humor. It’s funny,” said Poltrack. “It can be silly and goofy like the other ones, but where he is really distinguishing himself is as an interviewer and as somebody who brings interesting, non-traditional guests on to the show.”
The coming year – filled with the churning conversation that is sparked by a looming Presidential election and an Olympics – could prove pivotal for Colbert and CBS. “He’s positioned himself to be the place you want to go to hear interesting conversations about these events and get a funny but meaningful and substantive commentary on them,” said Poltrack. Colbert will continue to seek out guests from the worlds of business and politics as well as those involved in events that capture the nation’s interest, the executive said.
CBS is looking more intently at performance of the “Late Show” in comparison to David Letterman’s tenure a year ago than it is against Fallon or Kimmel. Over the course of the first nine weeks of the television season (which exclude Colbert’s first well-hyped two weeks on air), “Late Show” has mustered a 52% surge in viewers between 18 and 49 compared with the program last year under David Letterman, according to Nielsen; a 118% increase in viewers between 18 and 34; and a 144% hike in men between 18 and 34. In the last category, “Late Show” trumped “Tonight Show” by 36,000 viewers.
“Colbert is up a lot over Letterman, and he’s up a lot in the younger demographics. And late-night is now a very profitable thing for us with Colbert and [James] Corden [of ‘The Late Late Show’], while as in the latter years of Letterman and [Craig] Ferguson it wasn’t,” said Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS, at a November presentation to investors.
The emphasis on intelligent conversation with a variety of guests in the headlines can have a digital benefit as well, said Poltrack. While some viewers just want to stream short “Late Show” clips, CBS believes a good chunk of Colbert’s digital audience is eager to watch a full episode via streaming video. “I think it’s because of these longer, more thoughtful interviews,” said Poltrack.
Conversations with guests aren’t the only things that will be absorbing and considered. Late-night TV is a grueling marathon, not a quick sprint, and the various hosts and the networks behind them will continue to duke it out for months to come.