David Letterman stunned his audience last week with his announcement that he would retire from late-night television sometime next year.
The CBS “Late Show” host referenced a conversation he had with “the man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves.” He said he had phoned Moonves and told him, “Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring.”
“We don’t have the timetable for this precisely down,” Letterman explained. “I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future.”
The comic implied that his decision to leave the show was one he had made in order to spend time with his family, but many television professionals are more inclined to believe that the proactive move may have had more to do with CBS’s late-night competition for ratings.
The business end of late-night programming has undergone some significant changes due to recent technological trends. Viral videos, social media sites, and on-demand media constitute a new norm for obtaining and keeping late-night audiences, particularly the younger demographic.
After former host of “The Tonight Show” Jay Leno left his post in February 2014, Letterman had what looked to be the best opportunity to do something that he and CBS had been dreaming about for a long while; that is, best NBC in the late-night ratings race.
Letterman watched as Leno became late-night legend Johnny Carson’s successor, and later, after a brief attempt by Conan O'Brien at “The Tonight Show” helm, he saw the host job revert back to Leno.
After Leno’s exit, a new and unconventional host for the time slot, Jimmy Fallon, took over the reins. However, the ratings for Letterman’s show got worse instead of better. With Fallon hosting “The Tonight Show,” it brought in almost twice the audience that Letterman was able to muster. More importantly for the bottom line, when measuring the 18 to 49 age group, which advertisers notoriously covet, Letterman came in third place, falling behind not only Fallon but ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel as well.
Letterman’s retirement has created intense speculation as to who CBS will choose next to sit at the “Late Show” desk. There appears to be a clear top contender for the job, and it is the highly satirical Stephen Colbert, host of the “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.
CBS is refusing to comment on possible successors and has not entered into formal contract discussions with Colbert, but sources that purportedly have inside information claim informal discussions have already taken place.
The possibility exists that CBS could simply move the “Colbert Report” to Letterman’s old time slot, change the name of the show, and leave Colbert’s Comedy Central format intact.
However, if CBS asks Colbert to leave his persona behind and become a straight successor of “Late Night,” confusion on the part of some would no doubt arise since the public only knows the fictional role that Colbert has created for his Comedy Central show.
It is difficult to say what kind of hosting would take place should the real Colbert be sitting in the “Late Night” chair. The comedian chooses guests, famous or not, that will best mesh with his faux character for the “Colbert Report.” But hosting the “Late Show” typically involves bringing on celebrities that are seeking to promote their latest films, television shows, music recordings, etc., the two approaches and styles being very different from one another.
Other names for the hosting job have surfaced including CBS host of “The Late Late Show” Craig Ferguson, who has a clause in his contract that requires he succeed Letterman or be paid millions of dollars; host of E!’s “Chelsea Lately” Chelsea Handler, who is currently in intense contract renewal talks; Neil Patrick Harris, who just wrapped up another CBS program, “How I Met Your Mother”; and HBO’s “Real Time” host Bill Maher, who has taken controversy to a whole new level.
And perhaps the most intriguing name of all, someone who can wisecrack with the best of them, is a master showman, an experienced host with a proven track record of bringing in the ratings, and a class act who just happens to be free to take the late-night gig — Jay Leno.
James Hirsen, J.D., M.A., in media psychology, is a New York Times best-selling author, media analyst, and law professor. Visit Newsmax TV Hollywood. Read more reports from James Hirsen — Click Here Now.
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