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Late night scramble: Who will we watch?

Updated on July 12, 2014

Fallon's TV ratings are egg-cellent, but what will the future bring?


Kimmel discusses late night

RECIPE: In a warm pan seasoned with 60-something hosts, toss in a few 30 and 40-something comedians. Scramble them up and increase the ratings heat. When they're cooked through serve up a whole new menu of late night network TV offerings.

This recipe makes for an appealing, but unfamiliar dish.

ABC's Jimmy Kimmel is the unsuspecting chef. He created the beginnings of this new late night soufflé in January 2013, when he switched weeknight time slots with Nightline. Moving his show to 11:35 pm pitted his younger, hipper show directly against two talk show veterans: Jay Leno and David Letterman.

NBC, long time late night ratings ruler, quickly decided to promote Jimmy Fallon to The Tonight Show’s 11:35 slot to prevent younger viewers that advertisers covet from switching to Kimmel. Fallon’s shift from Late Night to Tonight occurred following NBC's coverage of the February 2014 Winter Olympics.

Peacock network executives were pleased with the move. Since “Fallon took over The Tonight Show on many nights he has scored ratings higher than those of his two main rivals — Jimmy Kimmel on ABC and David Letterman on CBS — combined,” The New York Times reported.

Senior administrators at 30 Rock thought it might take as long as a year for their Jimmy to catch up to ABC’s Jimmy. “We thought Jimmy (Fallon) would do well. We didn’t know he would hit a grand-slam home run,” said NBC President of Advertising Sales Linda Yaccarino. (See in depth stories about Jimmy Fallon and his producer Lorne Michaels.)

Fallon's Top Ten tribute to Dave

Fallon's ratings – a grand-slam

Since Fallon has moved to "Tonight" his show is No. 1 across late night, beating Letterman and Kimmel, as well as “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “Conan.”

– Nielsen ratings data

However, the gloating at NBC may only last until 2015. That’s when Letterman is set to retire. David’s decision, announced in the spring of 2014, really scrambled up the late night jokes and egg whites. (Speaking of which, while Arsenio Hall hosts a syndicated show and Chelsea Handler has a show on E!, the three network late night hosts are all white males.)

Letterman says he's enjoyed his years behind the Late Night desk, but he wants to spend more time with his family. (He has a 10-year old son.) The 67-year old entertainer called CBS CEO Les Moonves “and I said 'Leslie, it's been great, you've been great, and the network has been great, but I'm retiring,'" Letterman told viewers on April 4, 2014.

Moonves praised Dave’s lengthy tenure on late night TV (31 combined years on NBC and CBS – one more year than his idol Johnny Carson.) “There is only one David Letterman," Moonves said. “His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business.”

It only took Moonves a week to select a replacement for Dave – Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

Preparing to pass the baton

Then another late night host announced his retirement, further spicing things up.

When Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’ The Late Late Show, wasn’t tapped as Letterman’s successor, he announced his retirement at the end of 2014. Insiders say that Ferguson’s contract has a clause that forces CBS to pay him $5 million or more if the network doesn't pick him for Letterman's job.

Craig is planning to host a syndicated game show, Celebrity Name Game. It debuts in the fall of 2014.

There hasn't been a host named for The Late Late Show and many people are hoping Tina Fey or another woman will be the new ingredient added to this all-male late night omelet.

Let’s review:

  • On ABC: Jimmy Kimmel Live moved from 12:35 to 11:35.
  • On NBC: Jay Leno retired and Jimmy Fallon replaced him on The Tonight Show.
  • On CBS: David Letterman will be retiring in 2015. When he does Stephen Colbert will take over the reins of Late Night. Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show, is retiring in December 2014 leaving one network talk show opening.

Have I got everyone? NO! I forgot Seth Myers left Saturday Night Live, where he served as head writer and the anchor of “Weekend Update.” He is now hosting Late Night. Only Kimmel and Jon Stewart's “Daily Show” remain intact. Although Stewart has had to deal with John Oliver jumping to HBO, where he stars in a one-night-a-week late night show.

Comedy from Dave's first 10 yrs.

Late night hosts are unique

Why concern ourselves with this scramble of TV late night hosts on CBS and NBC?

There's always been something unique about late night hosts.since the days of Steve Allen and Jack Parr, when this genre was invented in 1954 by NBC Chairman Sylvester "Pat". Weaver (who also created the Today show).

I guess it’s because they “live” in our bedrooms during the last waking hours of our day. We quickly develop a special closeness to them. In our minds they become part of our family. Otherwise we wouldn’t invite them into our bedrooms while we’re snuggling between the sheets before we drift off to sleep.

Allen, Parr, Carson, Leno, Conan O'Brien, Fallon, Kimmel and Letterman have had a strong impact on millions and millions of American viewers. As the TV medium has changed over the years, viewership has dropped considerable since the days when Carson was “King of Late Night.” But late night TV is still important to broadcasters, if it wasn’t would we be faced with this current scramble?

Colbert honed his comedy timing at Northwestern & Second City

As we said, right now Jimmy Fallon is the ratings leader, but with the impending change at CBS the witching hour will continue to be a TV time period in a state of flux.

Colbert is the wild card. Stephen plays a satirical right-wing character on his Emmy and Peabody Award-winning show, but he plans to drop that persona. So late night viewers are left wondering how will his CBS show flesh out?

The real Stephen Colbert appears on Anderson Cooper's talk show

There's very little recent evidence on how the real Colbert will act on Late Night, other than some talk show appearances as himself. ►

Colbert grew up in Charleston, SC, the youngest of 11 children. When he was 10, Stephen dealt with a life changing tragedy. His father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash. This caused him to become an introvert. He found comfort in solitary activities such as reading and writing. Later, he performing in several plays at his preparatory school. He owes his interest in theater to his Mother. "Mom kind of led me toward acting. She always wanted to be an actress," Stephen said.

He eventually enrolled as a theater major in Chicago’s Northwestern University. In 1988, two years after graduating, he joined the famed Second City comedy troupe. At Second City, Colbert met comedians Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. The trio soon created and starred in Comedy Central cult hits Strangers with Candy and Exit 57.

Colbert's Words of Wisdom:

"I deliver my Truth hot and hard."

"There's nothing wrong with being gay. I have plenty of friends who are going to hell."

"I don't accept the status quo. I do accept Visa, MasterCard, or American Express."

In 1997, Stephen began appearing on The Daily Show as a conservative correspondent. In 2005, Comedy Central gave him his own show. The Colbert Report featuring Stephen as the right-wing host he perfected on The Daily Show. Colbert's program soon became one of the highest rated shows on the comedy network owned by CBS/Viacom.

In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people. He also has impacted our culture by inventing words like “truthiness,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary awarded this term Word of the Year in 2005.

Colbert was very appreciative when CBS chose him to take over after Letterman retires. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead,” he said. “I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.” –TDowling

© 2014 Thomas Dowling


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