High Definition

The Crownless King-to-Be of Late Night TV

David Letterman

David Letterman announcing his forthcoming retirement was, to be sure, news. What it wasn’t, not exactly anyway, was surprising. “I’m probably too old for this” had become the main undercurrent of his shtick years ago, and once his eternal rival Jay Leno was finally driven from the air (or the 11:30 pm time slot, at least) everyone who cared knew it was only a matter of time. Dave was the original late-night TV rebel, his anarchic oddball approach to TV comedy in the ’80s laying the groundwork for everything from The Daily Show to Adult Swim. But the time had come.

The news would be who would inherit the chair.

If you’re younger than 20, it might be hard to believe that network Late Night shows were once among TV’s most important gigs. In the years before streaming, DVR, cable or even VCRs, televised programming was scheduled around a reliably cycling audience: Early morning was for young kids, daytime was for moms, afternoons were for older kids home from school and evening was for “family” (read: whatever dad was going to make everyone else watch). Then came the news and finally, the late shows: A smiling emcee would summarize the events of the day, give the floor to some standup comedy or a musical act, interview somebody famous and see America off to bed. And for decades, that emcee spot was one of the most coveted positions in the industry.

Johnny Carson

It’s trendy to contend that Jay Leno brought all that to ruin, first by “stealing” Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show inheritance from supposed rightful heir Letterman (thought too much the maverick by network bosses) and then by morphing from a once-lauded standup talent to the safest, most toothless comedy host imaginable at the moment when TV was otherwise moving away from such fare. But that’s just it: The need for a Late Night host to summarize the day was rendered obsolete by the 24-hour news cycle and an audience that had largely learned how to mock the media-narrative on their own. Leno didn’t so much “kill” late night as fossilize along with it, occupying space while the new generation of post-10 pm viewers fractured between an edgier breed of current-events commentary like The Daily Show and the unfiltered anarchy of Adult Swim and the like. (Letterman was a pioneer here, too – his famous “Top 10 Lists” were custom-built to be shared the next day via Caveman Twitter, aka Morning Radio, to build buzz with an audience that might not have actually watched the show.)

The only place this was shift wasn’t apparent, though, is where it supposedly mattered most: The ratings, where Leno reigned supreme. But we’ll come back to that…

Another round of change has been in the offing for awhile. It’s been no secret that the networks, conscious of a shifting audience, had tried for years to set the stage for Generation X’s inevitable inheritance of late night. NBC in particular has been rather publicly looking to move on from Leno, first with a haphazard launch for a new Conan O’Brien-fronted Tonight Show that was never permitted to find its own footing. Now with Jay seemingly gone for good (at least until some cable net looking to hit his 50-plus niche backs a truck of money up to his house, which isn’t inconceivable) they’ve installed SNL-alum Jimmy Fallon; who fits the rare profile of being a “young comedy” icon with ties to a network rather than cable or the internet. And heading into this past weekend, we learned who would succeed Letterman at CBS:

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.


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.

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.


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.

About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.