Can Colbert Trump Fallon in Late-Night Ratings Race?

Political humor has given the 'Late Show' host a big boost (and a rare win) in closing the gap with 'The Tonight Show.'
Michele Crowe/CBS
Jon Stewart on 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert'

As the nation goes, so goes late-night. The broadcast ratings race is suddenly red-hot again as the primary trio of hosts take distinct approaches now that the 2016 presidential election is a fading memory. And, for Stephen Colbert, his continued lean into politics is paying dividends.

If Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office are good for anyone, it’s the frequently wonkish CBS host. His Late Show, the most aggressive in its coverage of Trump, has narrowed the once-sizable viewership gap with perennial leader The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, prompting many to wonder how secure NBC’s No. 1 status will be during Trump’s presidency.

Colbert virtually tied Fallon the week of the inauguration. And, in his first full week of original episodes covering the new administration, Colbert welcomed former Daily Show host Jon Stewart to take Trump to task for his “Muslim ban” and narrowly won the broadcast week, edging past Fallon with 2.77 million viewers to the latter's 2.76 million. This is a first since Colbert's CBS debut in 2015, and is no doubt aided by dips on Fallon’s side. The Tonight Show started the season pacing more than 30 percent ahead of The Late Show. Since Jan. 1, it’s only up by 13 percent.

In the key demo of adults 18-49, Colbert remains a firm No. 2 — often close with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel — but the famously apolitical Fallon may be veering more into current events to keep it that way (see his Feb. 2 sit-down with Dan Rather). But what Fallon doesn’t have is Colbert’s interest in covering the issues of the day.

“Stephen and the writers have a point of view,” says one source close to the show. “It’s less of a left-wing point of view and more of a ‘calling bullshit’ point of view. Right now, that’s Trump.”


A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.