CBS Approached John Oliver for Late Night Show as Major Shuffle Looms (Exclusive)

John Oliver - H 2014
AO Images/Invision

John Oliver - H 2014

The pitch was for Oliver potentially to take the 12:30 time slot occupied by Craig Ferguson as the network begins the big task of replacing David Letterman and possibly remaking its entire late-night block.

In the weeks after John Oliver successfully filled in for Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's The Daily Show last summer, CBS executives initiated talks with Oliver's representatives about launching a show on their network, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. 

The pitch was for Oliver potentially to occupy the 12:30 time slot currently filled by The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in the event Ferguson does not re-up his contract at the end of 2014, or possibly for Oliver to launch a different show that would be syndicated by CBS, according to sources.

The talks, which ended when Oliver chose in November to host a weekly show on HBO, illustrate the significant challenges CBS faces in remaking its late-night block now that David Letterman announced Thursday he will retire from Late Show sometime in 2015. Ferguson has his fans, but he has not emerged as Letterman's heir apparent, because his show is perceived as a more niche chat hour built around his quirky interview style rather than a mainstream variety show that has embraced the digital era, as Jimmy Fallon has at NBC and Jimmy Kimmel at ABC. In addition, the fact that Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company produces with CBS both his Late Show and Ferguson's Late Late Show seemingly gives the network a chance to clean house and rebuild with a new generation of talent, if it chooses to do so.

CBS declined to comment.

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Still, replacing Letterman and potentially Ferguson will be a much more difficult task than it might have been two decades ago, when Letterman defected from NBC's Late Night to launch his CBS show. As evidenced by Oliver's decision to host a Sunday HBO show, cable networks have emerged as a plum perch for late-night comics. That's a far cry from the broadcast-dominated world Letterman joined with Late Show.

There's no better example of late night's changed landscape than Stewart's standing at Comedy Central. A decade ago, it would be Stewart who was desperate for a call from CBS CEO Leslie Moonves; today, it's hard to imagine Moonves wouldn't kill to have Stewart on his network. And, perhaps more noteworthy, Stewart would have little incentive to make the leap. Comedy Central has not only made him among the highest paid hosts, with a salary reported at between $25 million to $30 million per year, but also offered him a platform to do a show in tune with his persona. Though it often out-rates broadcast competition among the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic, Stewart's 11 p.m. show is driven less by ratings as it is by his political and news interests. In place of the more typical broadcast rotation of broadly appealing celebrities promoting their latest film or TV show, Stewart and his 11:30 counterpart Stephen Colbert book a higher-brow (read: more narrow) mix of politicians, intellectuals and authors along with Hollywood stars.
None of this is to say CBS can't find a strong replacement. Broadcast still is able to offer a massive platform, particularly at the most-watched network, CBS, and a higher starting salary than most cable nets. NBC's Seth Meyers and, before him, Fallon, entered the late-night space with salaries in the $3 million range and benefited from the kind of marketing heft that only a network can provide.

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Names ranging from Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris to Chris Rock and Conan O'Brien (still doing a broadcast-style show despite a cable platform on TBS) have already surfaced as potential Letterman replacements, with multiple sources agreeing Ferguson is not seriously in the running. Female-skewing Chelsea Handler surely will put her hat in the ring too, after THR reported earlier this week that she plans to leave E! at the conclusion of her contract this year.

One thing not to look for is a shakeup in the broadcast TV late-night format. As Meyers noted when he launched his by-the-book broadcast show in February, there's a reason that the network late-night hours tend to look the same. "The format is the format because it works," he told THR of the monologue/comedy bit/guest interview routine. Though he talked about wanting to cast his net of guests wider than is typical for broadcast, with politicians, authors and pundits, he has spent the past month-plus hosting a series of familiar celebrity faces, including Amy Poehler and Kim Kardashian.

Given the challenge (and high cost) of recruiting a top talent to replace Letterman, CBS could go the route of placing an unknown or emerging talent in Letterman's chair. "Do they want a 20th Century show or do they want a 21st Century show?" asks one source familiar with the late-night TV wars, referring to the viral videos and stunts that have helped Fallon and Kimmel lure younger viewers and increase relevance in the digital era. "ABC and NBC have both shifted to 21st Century shows."

But CBS' audience in primetime famously skews older. Would the viewers that tune in for Blue Bloods want to stick around for a bit like Fallon's "Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing"? And, unlike NBC, which has a stable of in-house stars from Saturday Night Live, CBS lacks a roster of young talent and a maestro in Lorne Michaels, who now produces both the Fallon and Meyers shows.

Further complicating matters, while Letterman will step down when his contract expires in 2015, his Worldwide Pants company will live on. Because it makes Late Show and The Late Late Show with CBS, the network would have to license the name or buy the company outright to keep the Late Show title. 

One other wrinkle: CBS likely would benefit from relocating the show to Los Angeles, a less crowded (and more star-friendly) locale now that Fallon uprooted The Tonight Show to New York. But one rumored LA-based option is not on the table -- sources tell THR that Jay Leno, who recently ended his run as host of NBC's The Tonight Show, has no interest in replacing his longtime rival Letterman at CBS.