New 'Late Show' Boss Raises Question: What's Wrong With Colbert?

A network doesn’t suddenly assign a new showrunner to a show unless the network is concerned about the show.

Such was probably the case when CBS made the surprise announcement last week to move Chris Licht, executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” the network’s morning news show, to late night, where he’ll take over as executive producer and showrunner on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

Despite CBS’s best efforts -- such as the prepared statements in its press release in which everyone was positioned as ready to welcome Licht to “The Late Show” with big smiles and open arms -- it was hard to come to any other conclusion than that the “Colbert” show is in some sort of trouble.



There is lots to talk about here. For one thing, an observer might wonder how a background in network news programming -- with particular experience in mornings -- might prepare a guy like Licht to assume the role of boss on a late-night comedy show.

As CBS’s press release pointed out, Licht spent the last 10 years in morning television in news environments, first as co-creator and executive producer of “The Morning Joe” on MSNBC, and then the last five years on “CBS This Morning.”

CBS is pleased with what Licht has done with the morning show. Ratings are better than they have ever been, even if the show is still in third place behind “The Today Show” on NBC and “Good Morning America” on ABC.

There are some areas that would seem to be similar on a morning news show like “CBS This Morning” and a late-night entertainment show like “Colbert.” For example, both shows depend on the topical and timely booking of interesting guests. To some extent, these guests are often the same -- actors and actresses with movies or TV shows to promote. Sometimes, they’re newsmakers too, such as presidential candidates.

But it would also seem as though the job of riding herd on a group of late-night writers and segment producers -- basically gag men (and the occasional woman) -- would be very different than managing a morning news crew. Sure, both groups are supposed to produce programming that is “entertaining” each in its own way. But the styles of entertainment on a morning news show and late-night comedy show seem like two completely different things.

I don’t need to be reminded that comedic talk shows and TV news have melded together over the past decade or so -- to such an extent that, to some, the two have become indistinguishable. Or at the very least, many people claim they get their news primarily from late-night comedians. Fair enough, but TV news and TV comedy are still not the same thing (feel free to leave snarky comment below debating this point).

The issue that was left unaddressed in CBS’s press release was why. No reason was given for the company assigning Licht to this new job in which he’ll outrank the producers who, up until now, have run the show. That’s a significant move for a network to make.

With the title of “showrunner,” one assumes that Licht will have the power to shuffle the staff, rearrange the order of segments, make decisions about guest bookings, possibly even weigh in on comedy creation, and veto decisions made by others who are not accustomed to being vetoed. 

Clearly, CBS wants the “Colbert” show to change somehow. While the network periodically releases press announcements pointing out that the show’s audience has grown year-to-year, it lags behind “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and seems locked in a duel, more or less, with “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC for second place. 

Audience figures for a recent week -- March 28-April 1 -- were not atypical. “Fallon” averaged 3.318 million viewers, “Colbert” had 2.247 million and “Kimmel” had 2.24 million. In the 18-49 demo race, “Fallon” had a 0.84 rating, “Kimmel” had a 0.48 and “Colbert” was in third with a 0.44.

The fact is, CBS likely expected Colbert to improve on the “Letterman” show’s numbers more significantly than he has. I have a feeling CBS felt Colbert might have had the potential to increase the “Late Show’s” audience to such an extent that by now he might be dueling with “Fallon” for first place rather than “Kimmel” for second.

My own observation is that despite Colbert’s insistence in the weeks leading up to the show’s premiere last September that he would jettison the persona he worked so hard to hone on his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report,” he hasn’t done so. To many, he comes across on “The Late Show” as that same guy -- which is to say, he still hasn’t found his “Late Show” voice.

16 comments about "New 'Late Show' Boss Raises Question: What's Wrong With Colbert?".
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  1. Chuck Hildebrandt from Self, April 20, 2016 at 12:30 p.m.

    I can tell you why Colbert is struggling: his show is too mainstream, too much like Fallon and Kimmel, and trying to siphon off that audience, instead of bringing new viewers on board from the old Report looking for more of his sharp, topical, incisive, insighful, courageous wit, something that takes a stand.  If I wanted something that was all things to the lowest common denominator audience, I'd watch Fallon.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 20, 2016 at 1:27 p.m.

    It's no surprise to me that Colbert isn't racking up the kinds of ratings that CBS must have hoped for nor that most of his average telecast viewers are middle aged or old folks. He's on CBS, not Comedy Central, with a lead-in from the CBS late news on local network affiliates consisting mainly of over 45 audiences. What Colbert seems to be doing is courting a broader audience while still attracting the young sophisticates who enjoyed him on Comedy Central. As Chuck notes, this approach is failing.

    The basic objective of any five-night-a-week show is to develop a core constituency of every night or almost every night viewers. This relatively small number of true fans accounts for upwards of 50% of the average minute audience. So far, Colbert is failing to convince enough of his former 18-34-year-old afficianados to watch with anything like this degree of consistency. At the same time, he is not garnering counterbalancing support from older, mainstream audiences who may not appreciate portions of the show that attempt to recreate the old Comedy Central demeanor or outlook on humor, including many of the guest selections. Result: Colbert is stuck in a situation where his show does not excel at either the young/hip or mainstream approach on enough nights to convert enough people from either camp into "regulars".

  3. Darrin Stephens from McMann & Tate, April 20, 2016 at 2:57 p.m.

    CBS supposedly sold the show to advertisers at guaranteed ratings that were double what Letterman was getting last year. Colbert is now doing about the same as what Letterman did on Adults 18-49. The network owes advertisers and the big payday CBS hoped for from higher unit rates, lower programming costs and ownership of the show are not coming to fruition.

    It's not that he's doing badly(yet), he's just not doing "as expected."

    But I guess that does mean badly.

  4. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, April 20, 2016 at 4:47 p.m.

    I wonder how much of his challenge is the switch from a negative satirical fake persona to playing himself? That's a huge mental/personal shift for viewers that is hard to negotiate. Especially because he's doing it in a medium that limits how mugh he can leverage his natural humor. (Now that I think of it, he always seemed awkward as himself - that aloofness that played so well as his fake host still comes through when he is himself.)

  5. Barbara Lippert from, April 20, 2016 at 5:19 p.m.

    The new show with Licht's input seems to be all about "shareable" videos.  They were funny the first night, but they're playing Fallon's game. 

  6. Chuck Lantz from, network, April 20, 2016 at 7:19 p.m.

    I hope CBS isn't trying to reproduce Letterman's unique talent with Colbert, since that's very close to impossible. Letterman was funny and entertaining even when he was "failing" by the usual standards. His fans, including myself, thought he was even funnier WHEN he was failing; ... with a rude or clueless guest, for example. No one that I can think of, including Colbert, can approach that level of hosting. And I do enjoy Colbert.

    The other odd change CBS made with the Colbert show was the selection of the band. They went from having one of the best in the music business in Paul Shaffer and his all-star band to a guy who plays a glorified electric kazoo, backed by what amounts to a few session players, with a moderate-level star or two tossed in.  When so much of a successful late night show depends on the quality of the live music, going on the cheap with the house band makes no sense at all.

    Then again, I do understand the futility of trying to produce a quality show that also has enough low-brow appeal to lure the big numbers.  Or, to put it another way; ... TV sucks because it has to. 

  7. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 21, 2016 at 7:04 a.m.

    In my new book, "TV Now & Then", I devote a full chapter to the evolution of late night programming, starting with Lerry Lester on NBC's "Broadway Open House" to Colbert's introduction last fall. Except for Jack Paar, who pioneered the late night talk show as opposed to Steve Allen's mostly variety approach as the first host of "Tonight", once a new host is sampled and an opinion is formed of him---or her (Joan Rivers )---the rating die is mostly cast. It's very hard to take a Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Pat Sajak or Conan O'Brian, and upgrade their ratings on a consistent basi if you are facing tough competition using a similar format. If the opponent is Johnny Carson, Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon and they have developed a larger core constituency of loyalists who check their show out first every night, you are stuck. Sure a spectacular guest--if you can get one---will cause a one night boost in the ratings, but that is quickly cancelled out by a similar ploy by the competition. And we must remember that today's late night scene is crowded with basically similar shows on the broadcast networks and cable---unlike the old days when one or more channels were going a different route with movies, dramas, etc.. I wish CBS luck, but the key to success in the late night talk arena is the public's initial perception of the host. That creates the vital bonding that draws viewers back night after night and causes them to give their favorite first crack when they make their dial selections. Winning once in a while is not good enough---consistency is what matters.

    I wish CBS and Colbert luck but unless he can cast a new and more widely appealing image for himself---and soon---he may continue to disappoint the network---unless Fallon screws up, of course.

  8. Brian Kelly from brian brands, April 21, 2016 at 9:07 a.m.

    if CBS wants to take share from Fallon, then flip Colbert and Corden

  9. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, April 21, 2016 at 9:19 a.m.

    Colbert is an apt replacement for also-ran Letterman.

  10. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, April 21, 2016 at 2:12 p.m.

    What no one seems to acknowledge, especially the networks, is that the format is simply exhausted, and no longer relevant. The days of people repeating a Carson or Letterman joke over the water cooler at work are long gone. Force-fitting a talent like Colbert into the same old, same old Late Show structure and expecting a different outcome clearly illustrates the myopia of CBS management as they search for the future in the rear view mirror.

  11. Jon Christens from Kelly Scott Madison replied, April 21, 2016 at 4:16 p.m.

    Chuck Hildebrandt, are you saying you believe intellectual stimulation is the underlying formula for mass appeal and ratings success? With all due respect...

  12. Jeff Barge from self, April 21, 2016 at 4:48 p.m.

    They did explain it -- the show never had a show-runner like most other shows do. Still, the guy's reputation is not inspiring. With NBC morning people coming out of a VW dressed like clowns (how many can you get packed into that VW?) his market share in the mornings had a few openings to take advantage of. Free Ann Curry!

  13. Jeff Barge from self, April 21, 2016 at 4:51 p.m.

    I think they did explain it, they said the show didn't have a show runner just a ton of executive producers.  The media just had a slow day and this got a bigger story to run for them all. We all have complaints about Stephen Colbert, we just have to work our way through them like they do on network sitcoms.

  14. Debrianna Obara from Rauxa, April 21, 2016 at 4:56 p.m.

    I was a devout fan of the Colbert Report and have been mostly unimpressed by Late Night with Stephen Colbert, though I am still DVR'ing the show and watching specific episodes or bits. On the first show of his broadcast, Colbert's stage did not feature a single woman - not as a guest, not in the band. Since then, they have added one woman to the band, but in generally I find the whole show to be formulaic with its forced-banter and band. It feels like the show was written for and by 45 year old white guys and it has lost the edge and wit that made Colbert popular with so many demos on Comedy Central. And Steven even comes across as sexist in some interviews! I do think they need to shake the whole show up. They should ask themselves: Why do they need a band? Must they keep the stupid opening monologues and the banal music queus? It's blah, and help is needed. We'll see if Licht is the right person to get the show on track.

  15. Andy Kowl from ePublishing, April 21, 2016 at 5:27 p.m.

    With Leno and now Fallon leading the pack, it is clear you would have to dumb down Late Show so much to gather that audience, you'd kill it. Nobody can replace Dave, but damn am I surprised how well Colbert has done comedically. I see such a big difference between his old character and his current personae that it's hard to imagine how someone doesn't. I think that speaks to why a Colbert Report fan like Debrianna would not enjoy Late Show as much. I am the opposite: kinda liked Colbert Report, but after all Letterman was on, so who cared? The new show sure is the only one of the three that makes me laugh out loud. Who doesn't enjoy Fallon's musical vignettes -- great stuff, but for me not enough to watch his fawning over guests. Heaven forbid some network genius insists on the same from Colbert.

  16. D D Kelly from retired, April 22, 2016 at 11:14 p.m.

    One of the things that would make sure I checked in nightly on Colbert's show is NOT having reruns every few weeks. What's up with that??

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