CBS’s change of guard

For CBS, Letterman had been slowly but surely losing viewers, a situation made worse by Jimmy Kimmel, and only further exaggerated by Jimmy Fallon taking over The Tonight Show. One CBS executive was heard to have called it the “Jimmy Dilemma” indicating the decline of Letterman’s show and the shared first names of his rivals. On top of that, CBS had also had a rough ride with Letterman in the previous decade as the talk show host had been plagued with a mix of health problems as well a sex scandal involving a long time Late Show employee. For CBS the last straw was the Late Show’s lack of viewers in the 18-35 year old demographic, most of whom gravitated to the younger Fallon and Kimmel. It now seemed ironic that the same viewers who made Letterman’s show young and trendy before NBC’s Friday Night Videos years before, were now part of a demographic of older viewers CBS didn’t want to target, and part of what CBS considered to be wrong with the Late Show’s viewership and ratings.

In April of 2014 only a little after month since Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show, Letterman would announce his retirement from the Late Show. Following that, news came very quickly that Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert of The Stephen Colbert Report would replace Letterman as host of the Late Show in September of 2015. Letterman would air his last episode in May 2015, and unlike Fallon’s unexpected early take over of  Late Night in a similar situation, CBS would strangely opt to show reruns of some of its prime-time dramas until September. The fact that Letterman would leave CBS in the lurch for four months, and that CBS opted not to show reruns of Letterman episodes in that period, lead some to speculate that Letterman’s retirement from CBS may not have occurred on the best of terms.

Colbert’s transitioning into the Late Show also didn’t seem to go without issue, as pre-production issues regarding a place of filming and tax credits plagued the new show. Initially, Colbert would achieve some success as he carried over fans from both Letterman and his own Comedy Central show, and his early ratings and reviews showed promise in 2015. In 2016 following his post Super Bowl show however, things began to change for Colbert rapidly, as the show slowly but surely bleed viewers and ratings. Although CBS has commented that they believe it’s only a slump, some have speculated that CBS is unhappy with their decision to have gone with Colbert and his politically heavy brand of comedy. Such speculation has even sparked rumors that CBS was already looking to replace Colbert, and in June of 2016 popular Late Late Show host James Corden had to emphatically deny rumors that CBS was willing give Corden the Late Show while perhaps moving Colbert into his spot or dismissing the host all together. Although CBS seems to be sticking with Colbert, the rumors have been even more fueled by the replacement of the Late Shows producer in April of 2016, and some modifications to the shows format, all of which some believe is a sign the show may be floundering.

Late Late Success

Although the Late Show has been under-performing, CBS has had a great deal of success with its Late Late Show. Between 2005 and 2014, Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson managed to hold the line for CBS against such comedy late night heavy weights as Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Meyers, at times even outperforming them in ratings. Ferguson’s approach to the Late Late Show was somewhat unorthodox in comparison to his NBC counterparts in that rather than presenting an orderly yet higher energy Tonight Show follow up, Fergusons show was often times chaotic and open to ad-libbing. Once when interviewed about the show, Ferguson stated that it “was the closest thing to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse I’ve ever seen”, alluding to the shows sketches, and mixed comedy, including puppets and musical numbers.  Although Conan O’Brien had introduced similar types of elements years before to Late Night, the show and its successive host, still remained fairly formulaic, while Ferguson’s show not only was a complete departure but went off the tracks entirely.

In 2014 when Letterman announced his retirement a contract stipulation stated that Ferguson would have first dibs on replacing him. However, CBS looking to avoid an NBC like Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show scenario, determined that Ferguson’s brand of humor may not be the best fit for the earlier time slot. Once Stephen Colbert was announced as the new host of the Late Show, Ferguson decided to bow out of late night himself with his last show airing in December of 2014. With the show up for grabs CBS considered a wide range of comedians including some major headliners like Chelsea Handler, and Neil Patrick Harris, but ultimately settled on James Corden, much to the surprise of many.

Corden seemed an unlikely pick only recently having become familiar to American audiences as Baker in Disney’s film adaptation of Into The Woods. Before that Corden had appeared both on Broadway and London’s West End, but had ultimately achieved stardom appearing in British sitcoms including his own show Gavin & Stacy. With that said he still seemed an unlikely candidate compared to Handler and Harris, but CBS felt Corden had a charm and ease that was suited better for the show, and CBS’s hunch about Corden paid off.  Although Corden’s show isn’t as zany as Fergusons take on it, Corden still manages to create a show that is funny enough, and different enough to compete with Late Night with Seth Meyer on NBC. Much like his predecessor, Corden has managed to stay neck and neck with Meyers, and at times has even beat him in the ratings. Part of this is thanks to a segment called Car Pool Karaoke, in which Corden interviews his guest while driving and singing with them, and often making humorous stops along the way. Corden’s show format is also unusual, being more like that of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or the UK’s Graham Norton Show, in which all the nights guest stay on set till the end of the show and often interacting with each other and Corden throughout the course the interviews. This can sometimes have hilarious consequences, and take the interviews and show in a unique direction.

So far in his one plus year of hosting Corden has done extremely well, and has proven himself with audiences and even CBS itself. This is also part of the reason why rumors have persisted about Corden replacing Colbert.
Elsewhere in the Dark

Although the big three networks seem to have late night locked down on week nights, there are still the other shows out there on different networks. One previously mentioned show with some success  and that is fairly well known is Conan on TBS, but believe it or not there are other talk shows out there. By that I don’t mean shows like The 700 Club, or some of the Nightline heavily news based clones that are out there but actual talk shows with guests. Of course there is Comedy Central’s long running Daily Show which recently lost Jon Stewert as its long time host, but there are other less heard of shows too. For me the two that come to mind are PBS’s Charlie Rose and Tavis (yes Tavis not Travis) Smiley, hosted as you can guess by those two men. Although the shows can pop up at any time of the late evening, they don’t air in Chicago till around 1 AM, and appear back to back. Although these shows can be news based at times, they are actual talk shows, just without the pizzazz of their big three counterparts. Often the shows are just one on one interviews with celebrities, with no commercial breaks, live music, or comedy segments. Although the format of these shows sound dry and boring, they can often be somewhat surprising especially since the respective host can concentrate solely on the interview and often get into things the big 3 network talk shows can’t. I was recently impressed with an interview Tavis Smiley did with Matt Damon, in which Smiley was able to ask about Damon’s long time friendship Ben Afflack in some detail to reveal Damon’s concern for his friend since his divorce.

Admittedly it’s not easy to find a lot of talk show programming out there in late night that isn’t sports or news related, but such shows do exist and can be diamonds in the rough