Stephen Colbert will soon be the first openly partisan comic with a late night show on network television.
It’s just one reason why today’s news that the liberal host of The Colbert Report will take over for David Letterman on The Late Show smacks of culture, not show business pragmatism.
Late night hosts must appeal to a wide audience. So poaching a comedian from the niche-friendly world of cable television makes little sense, particularly a figure with a hard-partisan persona. Yes, Colbert plays a “conservative” on his Comedy Central program, but it’s just a pose to mock the right and defend the left.
Jay Leno dominated the competition for years as The Tonight Show’s leader, in part, because he wasn’t a snarky, divisive figure. Leno knew that mocking the president, any president, was job no. 1. And his ratings stayed robust because of that. The American public could trust him with their political humor. He wouldn’t pull punches nor talk down to them.
Does anyone think Colbert, who rushed to mock Glenn Beck after the radio show host’s peaceful rally on Washington back in 2010, will come out swinging should President Hillary Clinton lead this great nation?
Yes, Letterman showed his ideological colors over the past few years, ignoring one President Obama scandal after another. But he had decades of bipartisan goodwill in his favor as well as living legend status. And it’s no coincidence that Letterman’s ratings slumped noticeably during his leftward turn.
Colbert has never been a ratings magnet. His show gets trounced by Adult Swim fare on The Cartoon Network. But we’re told by the press that he’s a major star all the same. It’s not unlike how the press raves about HBO’s Girls, insisting that Lena Dunham is her generation’s voice. Take a look at the lousy ratings for Girls, and you’ll come away with a very different impression of how the country views the show.
HBO, which keeps renewing Girls regardless, wants it as part of its programming lineup. Dunham is a loud voice for the progressive movement, one that will be quieted without an HBO platform to call her own.
So expect roughly a year’s worth of press adulation for Colbert in the months leading up his new gig. Then, when the country sees him in action, the ratings will similarly tell a far different story. For CBS, it’s about installing a progressive comedian into a plum franchise first and foremost.