CBS is understandably over the moon that it’s landed Stephen Colbert as its new late-night star. With Colbert as its date, the network so long treated by the media as a dinosaur, an afterthought or a curiosity (as in, “Golly gosh, can you believe how many people watch NCIS?”) has, overnight become the hottest girl at the whole damned dance.
Colbert will retire his Comedy Central conservative windbag character — who he has previously described as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” — and become Actual Stephen Colbert when he takes over as host of Late Show With Stephen Colbert. It’s devastating news for Bill O’Reilly and other conservative TV and radio talking heads who counted on Colbert for material about which to fume and foment. The character looms so large in the talk-show world that Colbert today felt compelled to issue a statement about Faux Colbert’s coming demise, saying: “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.” CBS Corp chairman Leslie Moonves said it’s unclear how the CBS late-night show will be configured with Colbert as host; in an interview with Deadline today, he expressed no concern about the fictitious character his new star has been playing on the comedy network since 2005.
Asked when would be David Letterman‘s last day as Late Show host and Colbert’s first day, Moonves said no decision had been made and reiterated that the end date was Dave’s to decide.
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Colbert, meanwhile, is going to work on his new show’s format through the year, to determine what will be the new iteration of Late Show, Moonves said. “Clearly it’s going to be a different show than Fallon or Kimmel do” and will play to Colbert’s strengths, most particularly his skills as an interviewer, Moonves said. “I’m such a fan, personally. I love his show; I love his humor. There aren’t many guys that come along like that, and what he stands for and what he represents is the perfect succession for David Letterman and the perfect guy for CBS.”
Asked to describe what Colbert represents, Moonves quickly answered, “Social commentary, thoughtful humor, intelligence, and classiness.”
Colbert also represents a 24% audience comp of men 18-34 — the Holy Grail of late-night TV. That’s compared to NBC late-night star Jimmy Fallon‘s 9% this TV season since taking over NBC’s The Tonight Show (an improvement over Jay Leno‘s 5%), and ABC late-night star Jimmy Kimmel‘s 5%; Letterman’s audience comp in that demo has recently been 4%.
“He’s a phenomenal talent, and we’re thrilled — and relieved,” Moonves said of today’s announcement. “This is something that’s been on my head and all our heads [at CBS] a few years. We knew the end was approaching” when Dave only re-upped one year. “ ‘I should not be doing the show as I approach 70’ – he said that to me,” Moonves reported. “He’s been such a gentleman.”
Likewise, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman and MTV Networks Entertainment Group president Doug Herzog “were extremely gracious,” Moonves said. “They got it, that this is a generational thing and important to Stephen — which I appreciated.”
Once the choice was made, Moonves said he told Dave and “he was very pleased … he wanted to call Stephen himself — he was very gracious. You worry about all the steps along the way, and it’s been pretty nice.”
Moonves says the talks with Colbert began in earnest a week ago when Dave made his announcement. “Dave announced sooner than we thought. We knew it was coming. But, you know Dave – he called me and said he was going to announce this in half an hour.” Once word got out that Dave had told his studio audience, “suddenly the phone started ringing, with every name imaginable,” Moonves said of the process.
Another Comedy Central star, Jon Stewart, first attracted CBS as a possible Letterman replacement — long ago, in 2002, when ABC approached Letterman about hosting a new late-night show, Moonves reminded. More recently, he said, “Stephen was someone we talked about all the time, when we would say Dave is not going to be here forever — there is going to come a point when he says, ‘OK, let’s wind this up.’
“Stephen was a part of those [internal] conversations,” Moonves added. “But this really didn’t start until Thursday night and then the shit literally hit the fan.”
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