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The Crownless King-to-Be of Late Night TV

Bob "MovieBob" Chipman | 14 Apr 2014 16:30
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Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert, late of The Colbert Report.

To insiders, this wasn't much of a shock: Colbert's current contract with Comedy Central ends next year, Viacom owns both CC and CBS, he's a longtime friend of Letterman's and was said to have been Dave's favored replacement for years now. But to audiences and TV punditry it looks legitimately bold, at least as bold as network TV can look in an era where the "alphabet 'nets" (CBS, ABC, NBC) are seen largely as purveyors of safer-skewing comfort-food programming while cable serves up Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

What makes Colbert seem like an outside-the-box choice despite checking all of the traditional boxes for such a job (hardworking/dues-paying comic with writing, stage and character-acting background) is twofold: Firstly, he's overwhelmingly known for playing a character, not for "straight" hosting. He's made a name for himself for almost a decade now embodying a same-named alternate persona on The Colbert Report, an affectionately brutal parody of cable news demagogues like Bill O'Reilly. And while Report has carefully-cultivated a loyal audience that "gets it" - predominantly urbane Gen-Xers and Millennials familiar with ironic "drinking game" appreciation of Fox News and attendant conservative media - it's seen as an open question whether the older, more traditional-minded audience that still makes up the bulk of network late-night's viewership (Colbert and Fallon are both "preemptive-strike" hires, anticipating an aging Generation X inheriting Baby-Boomer viewing habits) can accept that the real Stephen Colbert who'll be taking Letterman's chair is not actually the ignorant jerk they've seen in clips on their children's Facebook feeds.

Leno Political humor

The other shoe, as ever, is political. Colbert is seen (not unfairly) as a partisan, and late-night hosts are ostensibly expected to at least affect a more moderate poise. To hear some tell it, that was the secret to Jay Leno being a consistent ratings winner even as almost every other late-night figure was more relevant in terms of their sketches and zingers slipping into the popular lexicon: He was willing/eager to swat at all comers in an era where TV comedy (overwhelmingly produced in nominally leftward-leaning U.S. coastal cities) was often seen as throttling the American right-wing just a bit harder than the other side. Of course, for that to "work" one has to assume that there was more to Jay's moderation than simple lowest-risk calculation (i.e. "How 'bout those clowns in Congress, huh folks??" being a reliable layup regardless of context); but a meme is a meme.

Sure enough, notorious talk-radio agitator Rush Limbaugh was quick to declare that in hiring Colbert CBS had "declared war on the Heartland of America." Political writer Christian Toto opined that Colbert was "chosen to boost The Left, not CBS ratings." Film critic Kyle Smith even got in on the game, offering that Colbert was "not funny" (and if there's anybody who knows about not being good at one's job, it's Kyle Smith). The emerging theme took shape: CBS brass was more concerned with the NY/LA cocktail party applause they'd receive for Colbert than with the good business sense it would make to find someone more like Leno. After all, it is indisputably true that Jay's safer act got better ratings than Dave's, and that he also massively outdrew cable fixtures like Colbert and The Daily Show, (usually, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim edges TDS/TCR in their time slot).

There's just one problem with that math, though: There's ratings... but there's also the right kind of ratings.

TV history records a famous moment known as "The Rural Purge," which interestingly enough also took place at CBS. In the 1960s, the network was affectionately nicknamed "The Country Broadcast System" for its abundance of shows built around rural/middle-American characters and settings: Andy Griffith, Green Acres, Hee-Haw, Beverly Hillbillies, etc. These shows were all extremely popular even well into their respective runs, but by the end of the decade they and their network were also routinely mocked by a broader entertainment culture that was seeing a reorientation of the pop-zeitgeist toward metropolitan/urban trends and a "counterculture" that turned out to be much more than just a fad.

Hi Def MASH

In 1969, CBS's new head of programming Fred Silverman began a bold (and merciless) rebranding of the company, systematically cancelling the network's stable of "down home" shows ("Anything with a tree in it - even Lassie!" one actor famously quipped) and ordering replacements with an eye on fresh voices, edgier subject matter and modern/urban settings. It was seen as a cultural watershed at the time, and was roundly criticized as the "betrayal" of tradition and traditional audiences, but Silverman's gambit ultimately paid off when new series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All In the Family, The Jeffersons and M*A*S*H became cultural game-changers.

The Colbert hire isn't even close to being as revolutionary as "The Rural Purge," but it's likely informed by some of the same spirit. Ironically, Limbaugh is the closest to getting it right: In the again-emerging cultural schism between America's rural/suburban "Heartland" culture and... well, the rest of the developed world really but for these purposes America's urban/coastal metropolitan culture, Colbert represents CBS going decisively in (what's seen as) the "forward" direction. Late-night gigs are supposed to last a long time, and the network has simply calculated that The Future is going to look more like Stephen Colbert's audience than Jay Leno's or even David Letterman's.

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