From Bret Baier to Rachel Maddow, News Anchors Carry More Weight in Late-Night

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

CNN’s Don Lemon recently delivered some amusing quips about bickering with his mother; his looming bachelor party; and his colleague Chris Cuomo’s diet (“Steroids,” joked Lemon).

He wasn’t holding forth on CNN.

Lemon, like so many other prominent news anchors, found himself in conversation with one of TV’s many late-night hosts. Lemon had paid a visit to ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and is among the throng of TV journalists filling what seems to be a new demand at programs that once catered mainly to movie stars. comedians and offbeat animal trainers.

TV anchors “have certainly become more prominent” in late-night guest lineups, says Rick Ludwin, a former head of late-night at NBC whose oversight included Johnny Carson and David Letterman. In an era when news programming is some of the most watched on traditional television and when the erratic movements of the Trump administration spark smartphone alerts throughout the day, TV’s herd of late-night hosts need anchors more than they used to, he adds

“The Washington story continues, and has to be reflected in the late-night shows,” says Ludwin. “Whatever the everyday Page One and top-of-the-newscast stories are, if a late-night show doesn’t reflect it, they are not in the moment.”

Famous TV-news faces have given wee-hours TV some of its most memorable moments in the past few years. Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier was caught on a “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” camera at the 2016 Republican National Convention hoarding mustard in a water bottle (and it was Colbert who in January disclosed the fact that Baier and his family had been in a car crash). Katy Tur popped up on an early segment of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in February to explain testimony by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to Congress. CNN’s Jake Tapper visited NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” to talk about the difficulty he once had getting Republican operatives to visit his show.

One news anchor who has visited several late-night programs says he has received “maybe a few more requests because the President dominates each news cycle.” Top actors continue to fill late-night green rooms, this anchor says, “but news anchors and reporters and political types are more prevalent now than before President Trump.”

News anchors have always visited the late-night programs, but perhaps not with the star billing they receive in the current climate. To be certain, Ludwin recalls Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw sometimes serving as a lead guest on “Tonight,” but he also remembers how NBC News personnel could also serve as a fill-in for David Letterman or Conan O’Brien because of their proximity to his studio (NBC News and “Late Night” are both housed at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “We used to refer to it as ‘the emergency guest.’ If someone dropped out in ‘Late Night,’ you could call Matt Lauer or Al Roker, and they would be at the studio door.”

The only rule most TV programs have about their booking polices is not to discuss them in public (do anchors for a particular network’s news division have to visit their employer’s late-night shows before others?). As a result, many TV-news outlets and late-night programs declined to make executives available to discuss the new marquee treatment some anchors are getting. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, for example, received top billing on the guest list for Colbert’s October 1st broadcast.

One possible reason behind the newsy dynamic? Two of late-night’s top showrunners hail from the world of TV news. Chris Licht, who oversees CBS’ “Late Show,” enjoyed a robust career in the studios of “Morning Joe” and “CBS This Morning.” And Jim Bell, executive in charge of NBC’s “Tonight” was a longtime overseer of “Today.”

“It’s no secret their contact list is different from an average comedy show producer’s list,” says Ludwin.

None of the programs would likely turn down a visit from Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon or Leonardo DiCaprio. And those “gets” remain important in the battle for late-night views. Much of the popularity of Fallon’s “Tonight” has been the chance to see him spur celebrities to take part in various games. But in an era when Hollywood is often focused on comic-book movies or animated films, some top actors aren’t always in a big-name project or on a hype tour.

At the same time, the Trump era has boosted viewership for some top news programs. Cable-news 9 p.m. hour – led by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and CNN’s Chris Cuomo – captured an average of 6.83 million viewers in the third quarter of 2019, according to Nielsen.

The Trump news cycle has given many anchors new chances to take part in book projects, podcasts or documentaries. Jake Tapper, Katy Tur, Major Garrett and Scott Pelley are among the familiar TV-news talkers who have had an outside project to pitch in recent months. Maddow is currently promoting a new book.

And the recent flurry around news has also created new business ventures the news networks want to promote, including a new anchor combo at “Today,” or the arrival of Norah O’Donnell at “CBS Evening News” (she visited CBS’ Colbert to talk up her new tenure).

In an era when people are more interested in headlines, it’s little wonder the late-night shows are eager to book the people who deliver them.