The day after CBS’s bombshell announcement that Stephen Colbert would replace David Letterman on Late Show, when things calmed down a bit and reason returned to her throne, industry pundits began to contemplate the deeper meaning of the shift in the late-night landscape. Practically speaking, it means Comedy Central is now one late-night show short — and CBS may be as well, if Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, or the network, decides to call it a day now that Craig’s for sure not getting the 11:35 PM timeslot. We’ve all been brought up to speed on the clause in Craig’s contract that landed him a pot of cash if the network settled elsewhere on its Letterman replacement. But Ferguson was quick to tweet his congratulations to Colbert the morning the news broke. That night, Ferguson opened his show with another shout out to Colbert, after which he teased viewers with cracks about resigning — but only for the length of a commercial break.
Congratulations to the hugely talented and fragrant and lovely @StephenAtHome on the new gig. Welcome to the CBS funhouse.
Ferguson’s contract with CBS comes up over summer, so some agreement will be reached soon-ish. Most pundits contacted the day after CBS made its announcement agreed a Colbert/Ferguson pairing made more sense than the current Craig/Dave one, what with Letterman going in for senior statesmanship these days, while Craig is still in his Skeleton and Plush-Toy Hand Puppet period. While CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler says publicly they love Craig, behind the scenes there’s rumblings of unhappiness with Ferguson’s recent numbers — which, of course, a re-energized Late Show lead-in would probably boost. But ratings are only half the story: CBS, which will own Late Show when Letterman steps down (Letterman’s Worldwide Pants owns its current iteration), is hellbent on returning the daypart to greater profitability under Colbert. You may have heard the one about late-night TV profits curling up like the tendrils of a delicate plant ignored by the gardener in the later days of Letterman and Jay Leno’s runs, what with costs going up and ad revenue going down. CBS currently co-owns Craig’s show with Worldwide Pants — an arrangement sure to be part of CBS’ talks about Ferguson’s future. Even if feeling like a guy who has stubbed his toe on the brick of Fate, Craig brought his A-game to his show the day CBS unveiled Colbert:
Comedy Central, meanwhile, is in a better position to fill its vacant time slot, having so successfully groomed comedy late night stars — not only Colbert, Jon Stewart and, most recently, Chris Hardwick, but also ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, and HBO’s Bill Maher and John Oliver.
Elsewhere, it was widely agreed by week’s end that:
a) John Oliver is kicking himself and cursing Letterman for not making up his mind to retire a couple months ago before he, Oliver had signed with HBO for a weekly news satire because it didn’t look like there was any room left on Comedy Central’s late-night slate. Oliver would have been the obvious Colbert replacement after getting rave reviews, and good ratings, when he filled in for Stewart over the summer; and
b) CBS needs to better prepare itself for right-wing radio and TV talkers making the most of the Colbert Goes To CBS storyline while Colbert is still playing his wackadoodle conservative talk-show pundit character on Comedy Central. CBS made it clear Thursday that Colbert will dump the character when he moves to the network — Colbert himself even issued a statement to that effect. Which was immediately ignored by conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, who was the toast of talk radio and TV Friday morning after announcing CBS had declared war on Middle America. Limbaugh, a disciple of Aristophanes, explained, “No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives. Now it’s just wide out in the open. What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny and a redefinition of what is comedy.” The hire of Colbert was irrefutable proof, Limbaugh seethed like a newly opened bottle of ginger ale, that “The world is changing” and “people don’t want the kind of comedy that Carson gave us, or even Letterman….It’s the media planting a flag. Media’s last stand…But it’s a declaration. There is no unity in this hire. They’ve hired a partisan, so-called comedian, to run a comedy show.” (If you’re wondering when Limbaugh became a fan of Letterman — get in line.)
There is something about the spectacle of Right-Wing Celebrity A punching Broadcast TV Network B in the snoot that speaks to the depths of journalists. The older, ink-stained wretches began to reminisce about the fun they had back in the 90’s when the political right attacked CBS for cravenly allowing one of its sitcom characters, Murphy Brown, to have a child out of wedlock. Skeptics of Limbaugh’s position on CBS/Colbert collected Friday morning around — where else — MSNBC to note that, were the network actually declaring war on Middle America, it probably could begin by cancelling NCIS, or CSI, or Elementary, or another of those primetime procedurals that litter CBS’ primetime and are mother’s milk to Flyover Country-ites:
Having not asked Colbert if he could take it down a notch between now and the end of the calendar year when he leaves Comedy Central, and with conservative talking heads happily raging around CBS like the ocean at the base of a Black Rock, CBS presumably knows there’s going to be a lot more where this came from and that somehow it will take the blame.:
But there’s another school of thought that the controversy is terrific for business at CBS. In much the same way, last century, book publishers and movie studios used to pray their latest effort would be banned in Boston, so do modern broadcasters hope their new TV show will be denounced by a right-wing talk show host. Complete stats are not available, but it’s estimated that a good battering by a right-wing chest thumper can add another 5% to the young male audience of a broadcast late-night TV show.
Colbert is already one of the youngest skewing late night shows on TV, with an audience median age of 43 years, compared to Dave’s 59, Jimmy Kimmel’s 55 at ABC, and Jimmy Fallon’s 52 at NBC. Colbert’s audience median age will immediately get much older when he migrates to CBS, but if he and Limbaugh play their cards right, Colbert could still wind up with an audience that skews younger than his 11:35 PM competitors, even though he will be the oldest of those broadcast hosts at 50.
But that also hinges on Colbert not disappointing his young fans with a new show in which he veers too far away from the Comedy Central character they know and love. There’s already some concern CBS, in its enthusiasm for a Boffo Headline, has gone and hired another Big Get to headline a show for which they’re not particularly well suited — like when the network announced it had nabbed the Queen of Morning Infotainment TV, Katie Couric to anchor its evening newscast.
When the Colbert announcement was made, CBS Corp. boss Leslie Moonves said there was no second choice for the Late Show gig, because he and Letterman agreed Colbert was far and away the best-and-only guy for the job. Various CBS execs, including Les, spoke of the erudite satirist’s wit, sophistication, charm, and considerable interviewing skills, contrasting him with NBC’s cordial song-and-dance-and-game-playing man Fallon, and ABC’s media-punking, man-on-the-street mocking Kimmel — the kind of guy who would book Jane Goodall on his show to discuss her new book, Seeds of Hope, and ask her if they could “go steady.” Despite CBS’s assurances to the contrary, Colbert gave his fans hope with his statement on the day of the announcement, tweeting: “I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me. I’m looking forward to it….”