Why a CBS News Vet Was Brought in to Run Stephen Colbert's 'Late Show'

Colbert Trump phone 2016 - H

Discussions with CBS execs about bringing in a showrunner began two months ago.

Since he launched his late-night effort on CBS last September, Stephen Colbert has been serving as host and de facto showrunner of The Late Show. But recognition that the dual roles — which he also occupied on his Comedy Central program The Colbert Report — were not sustainable on a five-day-a-week, hourlong program set in fairly quickly. And so about two months ago, Colbert began talking with CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves and the network’s entertainment chief Glenn Geller about bringing in a showrunner.

That effort led to the reveal on Wednesday that CBS This Morning executive producer Chris Licht will take over as showrunner of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

According to sources, Licht was looking for a new challenge. Conversations between Licht and the entertainment division progressed quickly; sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that they began in earnest only last week. In Licht, Colbert gets an executive who is accustomed to executing amid the warp-speed pace of television news in the digital era. At CBS News, Licht helped to transform the network’s morning program from an afterthought (and a show that even the network’s news correspondents shunned) into a respected alternative in a highly competitive daypart where NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America have long dominated. (Licht also adds the title of executive vp special programming, CBS Corp., though exactly what that role entails is still being defined.)

Licht has distinguished himself since arriving at CBS News in 2011 from MSNBC, where he established Morning Joe as a flagship program at the cable network. And Colbert’s show has hewed more closely to current events, politics and newsmaker interviewers than those of his main broadcast competitors. But he is competing in an intensely crowded late-night arena where viral segments are key and linear ratings continue to erode. It’s a landscape that favors the kind of buzzy, celebrity-laden skits that Fallon seems to effortlessly pull off or John Oliver’s brand of investigative comedy on HBO. As such, Colbert has had trouble booking the A-list celebrity guests that flock to Fallon, who certainly has a softer interviewing style, but also knows how to turn games-driven stunts into viral gold. 

For his first season at CBS, the overall numbers are in Colbert's favor. He's firmly No. 2 in both total viewers and the targeted adults 18-49 demographic, behind NBC's dominant Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. And, with an average 0.7 rating in the key demo, his is the only show up year-over-year. Colbert's season performance is also tracking 31 percent higher than David Letterman's final run.

But Colbert's linear growth from Letterman among total viewers is barely noticeable — up a mere 7 percent to an average 2.9 million each night. Late Show also is such a far cry from Fallon, pulling an average 3.8 million viewers and a 1.1 rating with adults 18-49, that its only direct competition is ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. The pair are much more evenly matched, with Kimmel pulling out several weekly wins this season. And compared to this time last year, Colbert is now tracking below Letterman's final weeks at the desk. In addition, critics have not embraced Colbert's new show the way they did his Emmy-winning Colbert Report.

And so there is a recognition among CBS executives that while Colbert has established a foundation in the late-night firmament, there is room for improvement. Colbert has always been very protective of his brand and content. He brought his core team of executive producers from Colbert Report with him to CBS. Tom Purcell has been overseeing the creative with Colbert, while Meredith Bennett has been managing the business side. Both will remain. And while Licht will be very much in charge, sources stress that he was in no way being forced on Colbert. The hope is that having a strong showrunner will free Colbert to focus less on managing the show and more on making it funny.