All eyes on new US late night TV line-up as Colbert, Noah move in

Debuts of Stephen Colbert on CBS' The Late Show and Trevor Noah taking the helm of The Daily Show are expected to be major pop culture moments

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 8:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 8:10am
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The US television landscape has transformed since Johnny Carson gave his final farewell on NBC's The Tonight Show in 1992. But even in the age of streaming video and DVRs, late-night TV is getting more attention than it has seen in years.

Viewers are eagerly awaiting next month's debut of Stephen Colbert on CBS' The Late Show and Trevor Noah taking the helm of The Daily Show. Colbert will premiere in Hong Kong on September 10 on Now TV. The transitions are expected to be major pop culture moments - and a new generation of hosts is using the internet to reel in younger viewers.

As Colbert and Noah come on, NBC is doubling down on host Jimmy Fallon by signing him to a contract extension that keeps him on Tonight until 2021.

Fallon, who took over for long-time host Jay Leno last year in February, is not only the late-night leader but is also scoring better ratings than his predecessor. He has averaged 1.4 million viewers this season in the 18-to-49 age group.

The topical comedy on these shows - a major part of the national conversation about society, celebrity and politics - is keeping their status as "appointment" programmes as more viewers use DVRs or streaming services to watch shows on their own schedules. Eighty-one per cent of Tonight viewers watch the show live compared with 62 per cent for NBC's prime-time series, according to Nielsen. The figure is 92 per cent for ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live.

It's not that late-night TV is immune to the increase in viewer choices and technological trends that have sliced and diced the mass audience that Leno and David Letterman battled over in the 1990s. Ratings for all of the late programmes have declined in the current TV season. But more people are watching than ever before as digital video clips from the shows draw hundreds of millions of online views.

"If it wasn't for that, many, many fewer people would be seeing the shows, because the ratings are down for everybody and there are so many people on," says one veteran late-night producer.

The potential for turning those online views into advertising dollars is one reason CBS executives are enthusiastic about Colbert's arrival.

Big-name guests honoured Letterman during the final months of his 33-year run as a late-night host. But as a business, The Late Show With David Letterman had faded. While Letterman took a pay cut in his final seasons, the profitability of his show had diminished.

Until Colbert debuts, CBS is running drama repeats in The Late Show time period. They've been drawing the network's best late-night ratings since the 2010-11 season.

There is a long-term business benefit to the latest host change that will last even after the novelty has worn off.

After years of paying a licence fee to Letterman's company to produce The Late Show, CBS now owns the franchise and will produce it in-house. That gives CBS more control over costs and allows it to reap the revenue the programme generates on digital video platforms as well as sales of the show to overseas broadcasters.

CBS has already got a sense of late night's digital potential with its new Late, Late Show host, James Corden. The 36-year-old British actor was a virtual unknown in the US when he took over the 12.35am time slot from Craig Ferguson. But his segments, such as Carpool Karaoke, in which he sings with star performers inside a moving SUV, have exploded online.

The expectation is that Colbert, who has already teased his CBS arrival with a series of viral videos, will be a big attraction online.

Digital video has been a marketing boon for late-night TV, making it relevant to the generation growing up with video on their mobile devices. Conan O'Brien has said when fans approach him to talk about bits from his TBS late-night show, he assumes they experienced it online, where his material gets 100 million views a month.

In the short term, however, all eyes will be on the changes at CBS. One major change in the late-night wars is the lack of backstage rancour that characterised the Leno-Letterman rivalry.

"I think there were some weird personality issues among various late-night hosts over the years," says NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt.

"Now that's in the past. Colbert and Jimmy Fallon are really good friends. They are going to be friendly competitors. It's a good business when you have hits."

Tribune News Service