After David Letterman announced back in 2014 that he was retiring from the late-night stage, CBS made the decision not to go with a traditional host such as Craig Ferguson, former host of “The Late Late Show.”
Instead the network chose to tap Stephen Colbert, a Comedy Central host who had built his prior show on a fictitious character, one that was, in fact, a spoof political caricature of a conservative.
CBS may be regretting its somewhat unconventional move. At the launch of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” thanks to the hype, promotion, and curiosity that led up to its debut, the show experienced a late-night honeymoon of sorts, which arguably may have artificially boosted the show’s ratings.
However, the show’s ratings recently fell to a level that the CBS network most likely did not anticipate. While Letterman boasted a long track record of being number two in the late-night ratings, Colbert's offering has descended to third place behind ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.
Following Colbert’s opening week, Fallon and “The Tonight Show” were still at the top of ratings ladder by a significant margin, but Colbert managed to out-rank Kimmel in the month of September and for most of October 2015.
According to a recent survey of 1,000 late-night viewers between the ages of 18 and 65, which was conducted by market research firm Penn Schoen Berland and featured in The Hollywood Reporter, almost twice as many self-described Republicans viewed Colbert's competitor, Kimmel, as watched Colbert's show.
Host Colbert seems to have alienated Republicans with a one-sided approach to late-night humor. Democrat guests are routinely treated with kid gloves while Republicans typically receive the brass knuckle treatment.
Analysis of the ratings breakdown provides a significant degree of insight. While Kimmel and Fallon draw audiences that are evenly divided in a political sense, (Kimmel: 34 percent Democrats, 33 percent Republicans; Fallon: 36 percent Democrats, 31 percent Republicans) Colbert attracts almost three times as many Democrats than Republicans (Colbert: 47 percent Democrats, 17 percent Republicans).
In the highly competitive late-night comedy arena, it is not considered a sound business practice for a major network such as CBS to disaffect almost half its potential audience.
Following the leads of late-night legends Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, Kimmel and Fallon have attempted to filter the content of their shows so as to make the substance largely politics free.
Network executives are undoubtedly aware of the cardinal rule of building and maintaining an audience: first entertain.
Colbert essentially cut his comedic teeth on Comedy Central by skewering conservatives, and the approach worked for the reduced niche audience of a cable channel, an audience that incidentally expects and enjoys watching one side, and one side only, being the ridicule recipient.
Colbert's Comedy Central approach does not seem to be translating to a national mainstream late-night show format on a major broadcast network where the audience is typically seeking a more entertainment-oriented framework.
CBS and Colbert basically took a gamble by filling the show with big-name political guests but opting to deliver an imbalance of political satire.
CBS was urged by liberal leaning critics to choose Colbert, critics who were enamored with the humorist’s Comedy Central show in great part because the sarcastic humor happened to be ideologically aligned with their own biases.
Interestingly, the survey revealed that late-night viewers are not looking for their late-night shows to be laced with editorial content. Participants in the study were least likely to associate Fallon with the word “opinionated.”
In contrast, participants in the survey were most likely to associate the same word, “opinionated,” to another late-night host, Colbert.
Unfortunately for CBS and Colbert, the host will probably remain in the late-night ratings cellar as long as the humor is reflexively aimed at one side of the political aisle.
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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