CBS Exec: Stephen Colbert's Main Rival Is Recorded Prime-Time Programs

December 11th, 2015 4:42 PM

As NewsBusters reported almost a month ago, Stephen Colbert -- CBS's new late-night talk-show host -- has been losing ground to Jimmy Kimmel on ABC and NBC's Jimmy Fallon, a drop that includes many Republicans and has sent him to third place among late-night viewers.

However, David Poltrack -- chief research officer at CBS Corp. -- has stated that a more dire threat The Late Show faces is not from other late-night programs but is the play-back of prime-time episodes recorded earlier in the evening.

Poltrack claims that the amount of DVR (Digital Video Recorder) use would dwarf the viewership for the time-slot's dominant host, Jimmy Fallon, since more and more viewers are using the hours around midnight as an opportunity to catch up on episodes aired hours earlier.

He stated: “It’s not like back in the 1990s, when Letterman and Leno went head to head.”

According to an article on the website by senior TV editor Brian Steinberg, CBS is training its sights on a different target than those in the past.

Steinberg noted:

CBS has a long-term strategy … aimed at thwarting TV catch-up behavior -- and if it draws attention away from rivals, so much the better.

To keep viewers from binge-watching their favorites, CBS wants The Late Show to serve as a place where not only can people get jokes, but also commentary on the most-talked about political, cultural and social topics of the day.

“You want to have a show that people say, ‘I’ve got to watch Colbert tonight and see what he has to say about this,’” Poltrack said.

The CBS executive “articulated CBS's plan as Colbert's show enters a new, post-launch state,” Steinberg explained.

“The big marketing campaign is over, and promotional bottles of cold-brew coffee CBS burnished before Colbert’s first night on air have been emptied or discarded,” Poltrack indicated.

“After winning the second-place slot behind Fallon for a number of weeks, Colbert’s viewership has dipped, and he has more recently been scrapping with Kimmel for the honor in the 11:30 hour.” Steinberg noted.

“Meanwhile, the people behind Fallon appear to have made a conscious choice to avoid weighing in overmuch on current events,” the editor asserted.

“To be certain, Tonight has booked relevant names ranging from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton,” Steinberg continued, “and the host’s monologue lampoons the news of the day, but Fallon tends to engage guests in comedic sketches and banter rather than grilling them for personal revelation or political stance.”

“Where Colbert has addressed audiences about recent violence in Paris and in the U.S.,” the editor noted, “Fallon has generally avoided offering personal musing on the headlines.”

Colbert’s show “has a lot of humor. It’s funny,” said Poltrack. “It can be silly and goofy like the other ones, but where he is really distinguishing himself is as an interviewer and as somebody who brings interesting, non-traditional guests on to the show.”

The coming year -- filled with the conversation that is sparked by a looming presidential election and an Olympics -- could prove pivotal for Colbert and CBS.

“He’s positioned himself to be the place you want to go to hear interesting conversations about these events and get a funny but meaningful and substantive commentary on them,” said Poltrack.

Colbert will continue to seek out guests from the worlds of business and politics, as well as those involved in events that capture the nation’s interest, the executive said.

On the other hand, CBS is looking more intently at the ratings and demographic performance of The Late Show in comparison to David Letterman’s tenure a year ago than it is against Fallon or Kimmel.

Steinberg stated: “Over the course of the first nine weeks of the television season (which exclude Colbert’s first well-hyped two weeks on air), The Late Show has mustered a 52 percent surge in viewers between 18 and 49” compared with the program last year under Letterman.

According to Nielsen, Colbert has also been responsible for a 118 percent increase in viewers between 18 and 34, as well as a 144 percent hike in men between 18 and 34. In the last category, The Late Show "trumped" The Tonight Show by 36,000 viewers.

“Conversations with guests aren’t the only things that will be absorbing and considered,” Steinberg noted. “Late-night TV is a grueling marathon, not a quick sprint.”

Of course, CBS executives are “cherry-picking” the numbers to promote their program, but 2016 will indeed be a true test to see if The Late Show is good enough to keep people from bypassing it with their DVRs.