Stephen Colbert's leap from cable to CBS's 'Late Show' – by the numbers

Comedy Central parody news star Stephen Colbert is making the leap to network late night TV as David Letterman's replacement on 'The Late Show.' What kind of ratings, audience, and content jump can Stephen Colbert expect?

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
Stephen Colbert hosts a South Carolina primary rally with former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain at the College of Charleston in January. Mr. Colbert is set to take over "The Late Show" for David Letterman in 2015. How will his antics, audience, and appeal translate to network television?

Late night network TV is about to get a dose of “truthiness.”

On the heels of David Letterman announcing he will retire from "The Late Show" after more than 30 years in the late night circuit, CBS said Thursday that Stephen Colbert, host of the Comedy Central parody news show "The Colbert Report," will be taking over as host.

The choice isn’t too surprising, given that Comedy Central is owned by CBS, and it is likely easier to hire from within. However, that doesn’t mean things aren’t going to change for Mr. Colbert, who has hosted "The Colbert Report" for over eight years after appearing as a correspondent for Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show." Here’s a look at what the jump to network late night TV means for Colbert.


Colbert may have a rabidly loyal fan base (evidenced by the signature “Stephen! Stephen!” studio audience-led chant that begins every broadcast) but heading to network TV will bump his ratings up considerably. Ratings numbers from Nielson show that in the past week, "The Colbert Report" brought in about 1.3 million viewers per show, while "The Late Show" had about 3.1 million viewers.


Sandwiched between fellow parody news program "The Daily Show" and improv comedy show "@midnight", "The Colbert Report" currently caters to a pretty specific audience. A Pew Research poll from 2012 found the show had the largest proportion of 18-29 year old consumers of any political news outlet (43 percent), 58 percent of viewers are male, 39 percent are college graduates, and 82 percent identify as moderate or liberal. "The Late Show" caters to a far broader (and generally older) audience. Both ABC and NBC’s late night shows beat "The Late Show" in the 18-49 year old audience category,  and the median age of "The Late Show" viewers is 54. One thing will stay the same, however – a 2011 survey by Experian Simmons found that liberal Democrats tend to watch "The Late Show", while conservative Republicans tend to watch "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno".


Though Colbert may have to prove himself for a few years before nearing Mr. Letterman’s salary level, it is certainly an understandable goal. Letterman is one of the highest paid late night TV show hosts with a salary of $14 million per year, and is worth over $400 million. Colbert currently makes $6 million per year, and is worth $45 million. There is no news yet on what Colbert’s salary will look like once he makes the switch to "The Late Show", but it is likely he’ll see a raise to match the larger audience.


Content will be the real tossup, and we likely won’t know anything about the format of Colbert’s Late Show until closer to its première date (sometime in 2015). But right now, the move to network late night TV looks likely to reveal a whole new side of Colbert.

Currently "The Colbert Report" is centered around Stephen Colbert’s parody conservative talk show host character, who hinges on fallacy ridden logic and the principle of “truthiness” (a quality characterizing a truth based on a gut feeling without regard to logic or evidence) to deliver his own highly satirical take on the news.

The segments get quite wild – he created a Super PAC to demonstrate the issue of shady campaign contributions, hosted a music festival (“StePhest Colbchella”), and a organized a 2010 rally along with Mr. Stewart that drew a crowd of hundreds of thousands called “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear” to highlight the polarizing political conversation. Letterman, on the other hand, has relied on creating reliable and repeatable segments, such as his daily Top Ten Lists and Small Town News. His monologues were conversational and relatable.

One thing viewers can likely expect from Colbert is the sharp-witted, edgy humor that has made "The Colbert Report" a success thus far, as evidenced in his statement about the announcement:

"Simply being a guest on David Letterman's show has been a highlight of my career. I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave's lead. 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."

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