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Late night TV isn't quite the high profile and low risk universe it used to be, and the faces of today's post-primetime talk shows have to be malleable in order to win over modern audiences. Take The Late Show, which was initially supposed to be a break from the overt political commentary that host Stephen Colbert was attached to at Comedy Central. 18 months later, give or take, Colbert is knee-deep in politics for every monologue, and it's moving the ratings in the right direction. Here's why that major tonal change was made, according to CBS CEO Les Moonves.
People want to see social commentary at the end of the night. They don't want to see fun and games. There's a lot going on every single day. . . [No matter what], 50% [of viewers] are going to like what you do and 50% don't.
A bit of wisdom in those words, as well as a bit of back-patting pride. It had indeed seemed odd for CBS to lure Stephen Colbert from his roost as America's most democratic eagle to The Late Show specifically to neuter what made him a TV star in the first place. (Not to discount Strangers with Candy, but...) And it's not like his ratings were the most abysmal in all of TV, but once some behind-the-scenes shake-ups occurred and Colbert started getting back into his old partisan trickster ways, that's when audiences really started to pay attention and get excited for episodes.
Of course, Donald Trump's campaign-turned-Presidency has a lot to do with all this, as it's given Stephen Colbert and the Late Show writers a lot of things to write about, which has really helped to turn the numbers around when it comes to the nightly viewership. The Late Show has seen a marked growth in its overall viewership in the time since Trump has taken office, while competitors The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! have seen drops. Jimmy Fallon, in particular, has seen his audience dropping like flies recently, and while Colbert has gained right under 300,000 viewers on average since January 20, Fallon's show lost almost 400,000 viewers.
While speaking at the Deutsche Bank Media & Telecom Conference (via Deadline), Les Moonves also said that Stephen Colbert is "winning," and although the previously mentioned gains are celebratory, The Late Show has yet to take over The Tonight Show in the all-important demographic of adults 18-49. That hasn't quite happened yet, as Colbert hasn't seen the same rate of growth in the demo as in the audience at large, but maybe soon.
Looking at CBS' bigger picture, Stephen Colbert is kind of on his own little island, since nothing else can be considered quite as edgy as he can get. Which was similarly the case during most of David Letterman's reign, as CBS' core demographic continued skewing older, and Letterman retained his youthful snark.
With no drop-off in material coming anytime soon, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs every weeknight on CBS. Head to our midseason premiere schedule to see what shows, political or otherwise, will be showing up on the small screen in the near future.