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Since the last election year, the political spectrum has completely changed the television spectrum, from influencing scripted TV to overhauling how cable news channels focus on daily events. Late night TV has been another drastically affected pop culture sector, with Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers all slotting into different spots on the politically comedic spectrum. (The UK-bred James Corden doesn't really factor into it much.) Going into the 2020 election year, one host gets to celebrate leaving 2019 atop the late night mountain, and it's The Late Show's Colbert.
For 2019's Q4 period, which spans from late September through December, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert managed to win out over its time-slot competitors in both in total viewership and in the key age demographics. CBS reported that it marks the very first time that The Late Show has ended a year with Stephen Colbert in the top spot over the two main demographic age groups. That made for quite the happy new year, one would imagine.
According to stats that accounted for Live + 7 Day delayed viewing, The Late Show averaged a 0.5 demo rating with audiences aged 18-49, which is the core demo that nearly all TV ratings are ruled by. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon followed with a 0.4, while Jimmy Kimmel Live! had a 0.3 in the same age group.
The other demo group that Stephen Colbert won over was the audience who fell in the 25-54 age bracket, which is commonly the more important demographic for cable news channels and other networks with viewers that skew older. While The Late Show averaged a 0.7 rating in this group, The Tonight Show earned a 0.6, and Jimmy Kimmel Live! had a 0.5 in 2019's final months.
When it comes to total viewerships, The Late Night with Stephen Colbert's victory in the Q4 period is far more obvious. Colbert's show had an average audience of 3.69 million per episode (still accounting for Live + 7 Day stats), while The Tonight Show only averaged around 2.02 million people, with Jimmy Kimmel Live! fairly close behind with around 1.94 million viewers.
Though Stephen Colbert started his Late Show run on a slightly more casual and generalized foundation, it didn't take too long for the comedian and the show's creative team to push its focus on political topics, with Donald Trump's term in office obviously getting the most attention. The subject matter is quite familiar to Colbert, who spent years as a satirical GOP pundit for Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.
That push to cover more partisan talking points is almost definitely the reason for Stephen Colbert's continued success, especially when compared to Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show, which purposefully pushed away from heavy political coverage in recent years (in part because of Fallon's infamously tousling Donald Trump's hair during the latter's campaign trail. (Stress over ratings losses has caused some creative changes for The Tonight Show, also.) Jimmy Kimmel also tackles political topics, but it's not entirely why his audience tunes in, so it's not quite as useful for him to go whole-hog on poli-topics.
News of The Late Show's Q4 victory was somewhat sullied by the first week of late night ratings in 2020, which saw Stephen Colbert's numbers take a dive behind The Tonight Show's. Granted, that dip can be fully credited to the fact that all the late night hosts were still on winter hiatuses during the earliest days of the year. Something tells me now that new episodes are airing again, The Late Show will end up ascending back to the top before much longer.