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Inside CBS’ Bid to Bolster ‘Late Show With Stephen Colbert’

Stephen Colbert’s name is on the title of his program, so it’s no surprise he has a lot to do with every aspect of  CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” At times, however, his involvement in the show’s minutiae has become a problem — one that the host himself has lampooned on the air.

When the late-night program started last September, Colbert was not only the showrunner, he even did the voice-overs during the show intro. One sketch that aired early on featured a producer having a conversation with the host about the inner workings of the program — on stage in front of the audience. The joke was that Colbert was so busy during the day with every piece of the production that he didn’t have enough time to take on anything more. As the producer tried to engage the host, he nibbled on snacks and talked to the studio audience.

CBS has decided Colbert needs more help. Ratings for the show still trail NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” In some weeks, ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” trumps Colbert’s efforts, particularly over the last two months, though Colbert has won more viewers season to date owing to a heavily-promoted launch.  So CBS is betting on an unorthodox maneuver: taking the executive, Chris Licht, who gave the network a boost in TV’s competitive morning-news battles and setting him out to help steady Colbert’s late-night ship as showrunner.

The move speaks to the intense competition in TV’s late-night arena. In a different era, say  one dominated by Johnny Carson, Jay Leno or David Letterman, a show could find a groove and stick with it. Viewers had limited options. In 2016, they have a near-endless torrent of late-night chatter that continues to swell. Comedy Central is trying to boost its hosts Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore in its 11 p.m. hour, and cable outlets ranging from National Geographic Channel to Freeform are trying their hand at bespoke wee-hours entries. Netflix will join the fray with its launch of a new three-day-a-week talk show starring Chelsea Handler (though viewers could certainly watch it at times of their own choosing).

Little wonder, then, that the mainstay programs of the timeslot are ready to make big tweaks on the fly. Seth Meyers began hosting “Late Night” mere weeks after he stepped down from the “Weekend Update” chair on “Saturday Night Live” in 2014. In August of 2015, the show made a major format change, ending Meyers’ stand-up monologue in favor of a behind-the-desk delivery of jokes that put the host in a milieu viewers might find familiar, that of a newscaster or commentator. The change has stuck, and Meyers’ program has gained more buzz.

In Licht, who will become executive producer and showrunner of “Late Show,” CBS has a feisty — and ambitious — innovator. Licht, a former radio disc jockey who helped create “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, has been instrumental in helping CBS mount a strong morning show competitor for the first time, more or less, since it canceled “Captain Kangaroo” and sent Bob Keeshan packing in 1982. Licht’s “CBS This Morning” trick could be one that serves Colbert well: peeling away some of the genre’s frillier elements in favor of a focus on hard news, breaking events and access to newsmakers.

That strategy has been what CBS had hoped would distinguish Colbert from Jimmy Fallon’s celebrity games on NBC and Jimmy Kimmel’s acerbic pranks on ABC. CBS wanted Colbert to develop into a personality viewers want to watch to get commentary on the latest political and cultural events of the day. “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,’” David Poltrack, chief research officer of CBS, told Variety in December.

Colbert has tried a lot in this vein, scoring a revealing and emotional interview with Vice President Joe Biden and a talk with Apple CEO Tim Cook. He has seemed less at ease when talking to celebrities about their latest movie, charity project or kooky anecdote. And he has seemed torn between doing some of the “fake-newscast” elements that were the base of his former program, “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, and some of the broader humor required of a broadcast-network late-night program that comes on after the evening news.

He has not had much outside counsel. The team in charge of “Late Show” is the team that ran “Colbert Report,” with some minor exceptions, including a producer from ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Sheryl Zelikson, a longtime staffer of David Letterman’s “Late Show” who helped coordinate music performances.  But the top producers are people with whom Colbert has worked for years.

CBS let Colbert come in and run “Late Show” himself, according to a person familiar with the situation, a move that might have raised eyebrows among rivals. Fallon was assigned a veteran of “The Daily Show” when his iteration of “Tonight” launched, and Meyers works in tandem with Mike Shoemaker, a lieutenant of the network’s late-night impresario, Lorne Michaels, who oversees both shows.  The feeling at CBS, this person said, was that Colbert had run a four-day-a-week half-hour program at Comedy Central, and had a reputation as a hands-on producer. As the buzz from the “Late Show” launch dissipated, however, the network felt it was apparent that running a hour-long program was “an enormous task,” this person said, that Colbert could not master on his own.

Among “Late Show” staffers, the view has been that the show is in its early days, said Tom Purcell, who has been Colbert’s executive producer since his days at Comedy Central. “We feel like we are finding it and learning about the space,” he told Variety during a March interview. “I think we are creating a show that fans of ours like. There’s still a launch mode. There still is definitely a feedback loop going on. We are still making adjustments.”

CBS has consistently said that Colbert’s charter is to improve on the viewership of his predecessor, David Letterman, rather than beating NBC’s “Tonight Show.” For the season to date, “Tonight Show” is averaging 3.8 million viewers in the 18-49 demo, compared to 2.94 million for Colbert and 2.43 million for Kimmel. For CBS, the transition from Letterman to Colbert was also a financial boon because the Eye now owns “Late Show” entirely, unlike its arrangement with Letterman.

But with the critical response to Colbert’s tenure to date being mixed, industry insiders were expecting some kind of changes behind the scenes on the production side. CBS identified Licht as a possible candidate for the job about a month ago, according to the person familiar with the matter, during a discussion between David Rhodes, president of CBS News and Leslie Moonves, chairman-CEO of CBS Corp.

Moonves is said to have proposed the idea of moving Licht to the late-night program. Executives at the network then suggeted the idea to Colbert, this person said. The two had dinner last week, followed by subsequent meetings, and discovered they could work together. As part of his move to late-night, Licht has been named executive vice president of special programming for CBS Corp., and will consult on various forms of content for various corporate units. CBS has been making a strong push into digital programming, including CBSN, a streaming-video newscast, and CBS All Access, a subscription video-on-demand offering that will soon include a new “Star Trek” series.

His immediate focus, however, will be Colbert, who has quickly learned that in the modern era of late-night television, no one can truly go it alone.

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