As Stephen Colbert Takes Stage, Late-Night TV Is Nothing to Laugh About

Analysis: TV's wee-hours battles are growing crowded and intense

When Stephen Colbert holds forth at New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater later this afternoon for his first taping at the helm of CBS’ “Late Show,” he will no doubt do something, maybe even many things, that will make people chuckle. Behind the scenes, however, it’s not clear that executives at CBS – or any other network that has invested in a late-night program in recent months – have much cause to smile.

On TV, late-night has always been a place for funny business, whether it be Johnny Carson’s Art Fern or David Letterman’s Alka-Seltzer suit. Now, after Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon and a cadre of new hosts with no direct ties to the genre’s landmark Carson era have hit upon new methods to make the shows resonate, the entire enterprise of the time-slot has grown exponentially more serious. TV’s primetime schedule usually draws the most notice, but as Colbert debuts on CBS around 11:35 p.m. this evening, it is late-night that has perhaps become the most competitive time slot on TV.

In the last week, Walt Disney’s ESPN and Time Warner’s TBS have used the spotlight accorded the new CBS host to boost their own wee-hours projects – a midnight “SportsCenter” that started Monday and a new late-night series launching in January hosted by Samantha Bee. To push back against an initial “Late Show” roster jammed full of politicians and statesmen, NBC has over the last several weeks booked Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie to appear on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” Meanwhile, Seth Meyers is quietly reworking his “Late Night” to be the NBC yin to Fallon’s yang: Meyers is booking more authors and intelligentsia and has altered the show’s opening segment to emulate his tenure behind the “Weekend Update” desk on “Saturday Night Live.” Comedy Central will put a new face, Trevor Noah, behind its “Daily Show” desk in just three weeks’ time. And lest viewers forget about new options, Netflix has begun touting its new on-demand talk-show series featuring Chelsea Handler, slated to debut next year.

At stake is a new way to reach the young consumers that TV advertisers covet. Who knows whether anyone will send a snippet of the new NBC drama “Blindspot” richocheting around Periscope in a few weeks time? You can rest assured, however, that many people will share whatever Jimmy Fallon cooks up the same night. Ad-buying executives know that some of the late-night programs grab a greater number of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 each night than some of their primetime counterparts. When each host’s digital pass-along is added to the brew, their potential to help lasso people to attend a new movie, buy a new cereal or drink a new beer only grows. Little wonder, then, that late-night ad prices this year rose by a greater percentage than those for primetime TV.

And there is turf up for grabs. NBC’s “Tonight” and “Late Night” win significantly more ad dollars than CBS’ nighttime offerings. More important, perhaps, is the glaring absence of Jon Stewart during the time period. No one considered Johnny Carson, Jay Leno or David Letterman the equivalent of a Walter Cronkite. For some viewers, however, Stewart had that accord. The rising generation gets more of its news through satire and humor, which is why HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” continues to win comparisons to “60 Minutes.” Attention is already focused on the 2016 election for U.S. President, and several of the late-night hosts seem to be making a bid to gain some of the light that reflected off Stewart’s halo.

Colbert’s early “Late Show” days will feature a visit from Justice Stephen Breyer, a pairing of Carol Burnett with “Broad City” stars Abbi Jacboson and Ilana Glazer; and a talk with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. It’s a different sort of mainstream late-night program, the kind that convenes guests from broader walks of life, almost in recognition that the nation has grown very weary of seeing actors and actresses hype their latest project and go on their merry way. Just as the network’s morning show, “CBS This Morning,” has brought ratings gains in that time slot by not trying to emulate its competition, so too does CBS seem to be aiming for broader acceptance around midnight by charting a different path.

With Colbert, CBS also has a chance to strike a new imprimatur for the genre. Late-night already has a guy who can get celebrities to do outrageous things (Jimmy Fallon); a host who can produce hilarious videos and play the mischievous imp (Jimmy Kimmel); a fellow who can say things about race and culture many would fear to utter (Larry Wilmore), and an elder statesman of sorts who has seen a lot and has the authority to do the show he likes (Conan O’Brien). What it doesn’t have as of yet is a person who is adept at delving into different areas of culture and can still make it all seem interesting and fun.

Success isn’t guaranteed. In the last year, even the most unlikely candidates have dipped into the late-night game. National Geographic Channel launched astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson into a weekly late-night talk show centered on discussions of science and popular culture. Viacom’s CMT enlisted comedian Josh Wolf to lead a four-nights-a-week effort that runs into the weekend. If Colbert isn’t distinct enough from the rest of the crowd, he risks adding another noise to the cacophony, instead of being heard above the din.

CBS is counting on him to make a greater splash, just as Comcast, Walt Disney, Time Warner and Viacom depend on their horses in this race. There are video-on-demand deals to be written and international syndication pacts to be gained. NBCU, part of Comcast, is likely to include Fallon’s stunts in a new subscription video-on-demand product scheduled to debut later this year. If only the late-night job was to craft a few monologue zingers and send viewers off to sleep, as it was in Carson’s day.

To win, Colbert will have to tweet, post, stream and joke his way into audiences’ hearts. No other kind of entertainment-based program has the potential to be so broadly relevant nearly every day, even when the show is off the air. And that’s the secret about this new and frenzied era of late-night programs and the hosts behind all of them: They make us laugh, but the work involved in doing so has become so intense that few of the people involved have much time to even crack a grin.

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