As this article notes, the viewership for late night talk shows is way, way down…in some cases, on a par with daytime soap operas, which are thought to be a kind of programming on the endangered species list. So will late night talk shows go away?
At most, I can imagine them eventually going away from late night. With more and more people time-shifting their viewing these days, time slots don't matter as much as they once did. We might very well wake up one morning and find that the most-watched talk show on television is broadcast at 3:00 in the afternoon and viewed at all hours according to the viewers' convenience. But to the extent a large part of the audience is still watching shows when they're transmitted, I think talk shows will endure at 11:35 because that does seem to be a kind of programming people enjoy just before bedtime.
And I sure don't think talk shows will ever go away. They're cheap to produce, easy to launch and unlike soap operas, they have promotional value for their networks. They also have a little more rerun value than soaps…not a lot but some. I do think we're going to see more cases where a show that initially airs at 11:35 is rebroadcast several times the next day the way Comedy Central runs each Daily Show umpteen times. No one has ever tried to do that with soap operas.
I also think — and this is not so much a prediction as something I think is likely — that Stephen Colbert is going to be a real game-changer. I think his selection to succeed Letterman is the smartest programming decision CBS could have made. The guy has every single skill you need these days to be a successful late night host: He's funny. He's likeable. He can do characters and sketches. He can improvise. He can sing. He's smart, which matters especially in an interview situation. He also understands the Internet and has shown he can generate buzz on social media.
Want more? He's respected in the business — the kind of star that other stars want to appear with not just because he has an audience to receive their plugs but because they want to be seen alongside someone they think is brilliantly talented. He's also very up on current authors, current shows, current music, current movies, etc. Also, someone once said that one of the secrets of Carson's appeal was that men found him funny but whereas women didn't want to look at a Buddy Hackett or a Don Rickles, they thought Johnny was cute. I think Colbert probably has some of that, too.
This is not to say I'm certain the U.S. viewing public will embrace him. I don't think Conan O'Brien (a performer I used to love) ever found the right note to strike on his Tonight Show and Colbert could have the same problem. But I still think he was the smartest gamble CBS could have made. If anyone can bring new viewership to late night TV, that's the guy.