Stephen Colbert's Late Show Topped Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show Ratings, But It's Super Close

stephen colbert laughing on the late show
(Image credit: cbs press)

The battle for the top spot in late night television ratings just took a turn. Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show on NBC has had an almost constant edge on Stephen Colbert's Late Show on CBS in one key category ever since Colbert took over as host, but that winning streak has come to an end with The Late Show pulling ahead in the ratings. That said, the lead is slim and there are a lot of variables, so The Late Show may not be in for a streak of its own.

Let's break it down. For the 2018-2019 TV season to date when taking into account the late night numbers from February 25 - March 1, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is averaging 0.54 in the key 18-49 age demographic, while The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon averages 0.53 in the key demo. That's a very slim difference, but CBS still has reason to celebrate. Gaining even a slight edge on The Tonight Show is something that was all but inconceivable in years past.

There's the chance that numbers could adjust for the two to switch spots, and The Late Show's edge may have been a fluke, but we'll have to wait and see on that front. One category in which CBS can be pretty confident of remaining at the top is viewership.

The Late Show has been winning in viewership for quite a while, and the competition is not even close in the latest numbers from TV By The Numbers. In the season to date, The Late Show averages 3.84 million viewers, and The Tonight Show averages 2.48 million. As much as it's unlikely that The Tonight Show will overtake The Late Show in viewership any time soon, there are variables to consider in The Tonight Show's favor.

jimmy fallon snail bowl tonight show

(Image credit: nbc press)

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was airing repeats during the previous week, and the numbers turned in by repeats are left out of season averages, as they would skew the results. The Tonight Show was airing new episodes during the two-week span, which means that the comparison of the two weeks isn't entirely fair, although it's impossible to guess how close the numbers would have been if both shows aired two weeks of new episodes.

Stephen Colbert has been slowly catching up to Jimmy Fallon; might the gap have been the same or even larger in Colbert's favor if his show had two weeks of new episodes to compare to Fallon's? It should definitely be interesting to see how the differences compare moving forward when the two shows are head-to-head with new episodes.

As you'd expect, The Late Show was killed in the ratings during its repeat week, with its 0.29 ratings falling behind even Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC, with its 0.38. For the week, The Tonight Show was easily on top with 0.51. The folks at The Tonight Show shouldn't just count on regaining and holding the lead indefinitely.

The Late Show was struggling for a long time until Stephen Colbert's political humor won him a growing audience, and viewers started to move away from Jimmy Fallon's goofy shenanigans. His interview with Donald Trump was panned on social media, and Fallon has stated that he was devastated by the reaction. The Tonight Show did make some changes behind-the-scenes toward the end of 2018, but will they be enough to stave off The Late Show from overtaking it?

Stephen Colbert's political commentary is undoubtedly going to heat up as the 2020 presidential election approaches, and even some of his cruder jokes that won the ire of some didn't drive viewers away en masse. The ratings are definitely worth paying attention to moving forward.

You can catch episodes of The Late Show weekdays on CBS at 11:35 p.m. ET and episodes of The Tonight Show weekdays on NBC at 11:35 p.m. ET. If you're in the market for some primetime options, swing by our midseason TV premiere schedule. NBC won the ratings battle in fall 2018, but it was not the network to gain viewers.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).