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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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But... what about the ratings?

Brady Bunch

It's true. Colbert's Late Show will almost certainly not draw Jay Leno's ratings, or Letterman's. At least not long-term. But one of the other lessons TV networks learned in the wake of the "Purge," (which ultimately encompassed more than just CBS) was that popularity could be counted more than one way. Today, popular culture remembers '70s sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family as classics; but they were both mid- to low-rated in their day going by the numbers. What kept them on the air was, quite simply, that what viewers they did have were teenagers, and in post-1960s America advertisers (whose purchase of commercial airtime is network TV's lifeblood) would rather have the eyes of teenagers than almost anyone else.

This was also the nitty-gritty reality behind the "Purge" itself, if we're being honest: Is there an element of cocktail-party clout - the sense of being "cool" among one's peers - informing TV exec decision making? Sure, but without money being in play "cool" would have no real traction. If Petticoat Junction's homespun audience could've been relied upon to respond to ads for new fashions, new appliances etc as well as The Mary Tyler Moore Show's, it would've stayed on the air. Maude's audience was more likely to buy new cars, Andy Griffith's audience was more likely to just keep fixing their old one - if you're General Motors, which show do you advertise on? To use a video-gaming analogy, it's the Nintendo Wii Paradox again: The biggest install base by the numbers, but the least attractive because they bought so few games.

What CBS knows (and what pundits like Toto rather likely also know but feign naiveté of to stoke to the culture-war fires in their readership) is that while The Colbert Report's ratings aren't spectacular, his visibility among the most desired audience is. Zingers from Colbert and John Stewart are distributed far and wide on social media, and make the news rounds everywhere from MSNBC (to be approved of) and Fox News (to be outraged at.) In the new landscape of late-night, that's potentially much greater currency than simply having, as Leno did, a bigger number of viewers but in demographics that advertisers don't consider worth chasing. And while culture and politics play a part, they're insignificant next to simple economics: "The Heartland of America" - mores as a demographic-niche than a geographic "region" - is an increasingly marginal presence versus demographics tied to cities, coasts and the broader "globalized" culture they have more in common with.

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That's not necessarily pleasant to hear. Nobody likes to be told (or to realize) that they're not favored, or that they're not the Belle of the Ball anymore, even when the "suitor" is just a cabal of advertisers and product-pushers. Every generation goes through the moment when they realize their tastes don't drive the culture anymore (many of the Gen-Xers who embraced alt-rock and helped hip-hop go mainstream are now scratching their heads over what the hell Millennials are seeing in Dubstep,) and sometimes it's not just a generation but an entire swath of the culture. And, to be clear, it would likely be a huge mistake for CBS and Colbert to port The Colbert Report's narrow comedic focus ("Fox News and its viewers are dopes") routine to mainstream late night wholesale - which is why they aren't doing that.

But the world does change. Time marches on. There's a seismic, transformative shift happening in the United States that will likely leave the nation looking, particularly in terms of popular culture and demography, like a profoundly different place than it is now. And gawky, bespectacled, unassuming Stephen Colbert will soon be even more at the forefront of it than he already is.

And that's The Word.

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