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This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
CBS’ speedy tapping of Stephen Colbert to replace David Letterman a week after the Late Show host announced his 2015 retirement might go down as the smoothest transition in late night’s often-messy history. Finding Craig Ferguson‘s time-slot heir won’t be so simple. In an interview after The Late Late Show host’s April 28 reveal that he will step down in December, CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler tells THR she has no frontrunner lined up and remains focused on the 11:35 p.m. changing of the guard.
“Obviously, it’s an incredibly valuable time period,” says Tassler of 12:35, admitting her phone is ringing with pitches. “We haven’t really thought about it yet. We want to let this sink in.” Ferguson’s eight-month heads-up, a decision he is said to have made after floating an exit with the June expiration of his contract, offers CBS time and less pressure. Tassler says a replacement will not be chosen ahead of the network’s May 14 upfront presentation, nor have conversations on The Late Late Show‘s future taken place.
The departure of Ferguson, 51, is anything but a surprise. The quirky host, who took over for Craig Kilborn in 2005, consistently has trailed NBC’s Late Night. He has been vocal about his lack of interest in assuming Letterman’s job and has said a decade at the desk feels like “enough.” (He will receive a reported $5 million fee for being passed over, though.) One source tells THR that while Ferguson has been itching to get out of the daily format, he remains interested in talk. For now, he has a 180-episode order for Celebrity Name Game to fill. He’s hosting and executive producing the syndicated game show, launching in the fall.
Ferguson’s exit creates an opportunity for someone to snag a prime perch in a late-night landscape that has seen unprecedented turnover the past few years. And unlike NBC’s Jay Leno–Jimmy Fallon–Seth Meyers transition or the Letterman-Colbert handoff, CBS has no obvious heir apparent. “It’s really a free-for-all,” says manager-producer Peter Principato, who represents top comedy talent. “Who’s that next comedic voice? How do they compete with Seth Meyers? Is it an ethnic choice? Is it a woman? Is it a person of notoriety like Sean Hayes or Neil Patrick Harris? Does the person come out of the Comedy Central family? There are lots of questions.”
Names already floated for Late Late Show — which likely will relaunch during the first quarter of 2015 and be produced exclusively by CBS without Letterman shingle Worldwide Pants — include many of the suspects tossed around for Letterman’s job. CBS shot down outgoing E! host Chelsea Handler‘s public push for the gig. But actress, comedian and The Talk panelist Aisha Tyler already is on the CBS payroll and her hiring would mark a change of pace for a pool occupied exclusively by white men. “It is a part of every conversation we have, every decision we make,” says Tassler of diversity, though not Tyler specifically. “In that regard, it will be a part of this conversation as well.”
Harris, a CBS favorite for hosting the Emmys and Tonys and fresh off a decade on How I Met Your Mother, has a hat in the ring. Other contenders are said to include Michael Ian Black (discussed before Ferguson got the job), The Soup‘s Joel McHale, Daily Show veterans Jason Jones and John Hodgman, and Amy Schumer — though the latter’s racy shtick could fit better in Colbert’s current slot.
Ferguson’s exit also paves the way for CBS to find a younger audience (as Colbert likely will at 11:35). With an average viewer age of 55, Late Late Show is pulling a modest 0.4 rating among adults 18-to-49 — and during the two months since Fallon’s Tonight Show launch, Ferguson barely has outperformed last-place Carson Daly.
“Plan number one has to be something that fits with Colbert to build a franchise,” says Sam Armando of media buying firm SMGx. “[Letterman and Ferguson] always seemed to be separate shows, and now with a clean slate and Colbert in place, they’re going to go for something more seamless.”
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