CBS Hopes Post-Super Bowl Slot Will Boost Colbert

Post-Letterman numbers started strong, but declines have disappointed ad buyers

CBS has rolled out some heavy marketing artillery to promote the airing of a live CBS Late Show with Stephen Colbert show that will lead out of the Super Bowl this Sunday. Not only has Colbert been starring in commercials promoting the special telecast, but the network has been heavily touting his guest list for the night, which will include Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Will Ferrell, Key & Peele and Megyn Kelly.

CBS is hoping that televising a live Colbert show out of the Super Bowl, the first time a late-night show has gotten the plum spot, will win many new viewers for the show. This drive has revealed a certain pragmatic necessity to the move. While the network has put a positive spin on Colbert viewership since he took over the show on Sept. 8, advertiser reaction has been more tepid.

While Colbert has drawn about 100,000 more 18-34-year-old viewers a night than predecessor David Letterman, as well as about 135,000 more 18-49 viewers and 110,000 more 25-54 viewers, he is averaging about the same total viewership of 2.6 million. And his demo viewership numbers have steadily declined since his premiere in September.

His fourth quarter ratings among viewers 18-49 declined from 0.94 in September, to 0.64 in October, to 0.57 in November and to 0.54 in December, according to Nielsen data. In December of 2014, Letterman averaged a 0.51.

Colbert’s strong first week in September has helped skew the numbers to date higher than Letterman’s. He premiered to 6.6 million viewers and averaged 4.4 million viewers for the week, but that soon leveled off to 2.9 million the second week. By the week of Oct. 19, it was down to 2.3 million.

For the most recent week of measurement in January (18-22), Colbert averaged 2.6 million viewers, about the same as Letterman averaged in January 2015.

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When the network announced that Colbert would be moving to CBS from his successful Comedy Central late night show, The Colbert Report, to succeed Letterman, there was lots of optimism that he would bring with him a much younger audience. In his final season, Letterman’s median age audience was 60, the oldest of the broadcast network late shows. Under Colbert, that median age has been lowered to 58, but it is still older than competitors The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon (55) and Jimmy Kimmel Live (57).

With all the fanfare Colbert received heading into the role as Letterman’s successor, media buyers say their clients are a bit disappointed with the ratings performance so far.

Colbert’s ratings across the board aren’t bad, but buyers believe they were promised he would do much better than Letterman, even though the guarantees CBS gave to advertisers who bought commercial time in the show during last May’s upfront are being met.

“Colbert’s performance so far has been a bit disappointing,” says one media buyer, whose clients have ad time in the show. “But he hasn’t been a disaster either. He’s pretty much doing the ratings Letterman was doing, maybe with a slightly younger audience.”

Perhaps some advertisers were expecting too much from Colbert, one buyer says. “When Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno he developed early momentum and never lost that momentum. That hasn’t happened with Colbert. He started strong and has steadily lost audience. Maybe expectations were too high.”

But another buyer says there are some bad signs of potential long-term problems. “The real story is that Colbert’s first week of huge audience sampling has skewed the season-to-date numbers, and where he has netted out right now. If you look at December and January ratings, Colbert is just slightly above Letterman in adults 18-49 and basically flat in total viewers. He does still have better 18-34 ratings but that overall younger vibe when you watch the show hasn’t really materialized. Maybe we had higher hopes than we should have for Colbert.” 

For the purposes of this article, ratings numbers are being used for the period beginning Sept. 8 when Colbert premiered as host of The Late Show. From that point through Jan. 22, Fallon is the overall viewership leader with 3.55 million viewers, down 4.6% for the same period last season. Colbert is averaging 2.66 million viewers, up 1% from what Letterman was averaging last season, while Kimmel is averaging 2.3 million viewers, down 11.2%. But Kimmel did not start his season early like Colbert and Fallon.

Among the 18-34 demo which is not a huge factor, but which is noteworthy because of Colbert’s entry into the picture, Fallon continues to lead with a 0.56 rating or 384,000 millennial viewers per night. He’s followed by Colbert with a 0.39 or 263,000 viewers, and Kimmel with a 0.33 and 221,000 viewers.

Among viewers 18-49, Fallon is also the leader with a 0.99 rating and 1.25 million viewers, with Colbert second at 0.60 and 765,000 viewers and Kimmel with a 0.54 and 681,000 viewers.

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Among viewers 25-54, Fallon is first with a 1.29 rating or 1.53 million viewers, followed by Colbert with a 0.79 and 935,000 viewers and Kimmel with a 0.75 and 887,000 viewers.

Colbert’s premiere week numbers propel him above Kimmel for second place in the three demos, but take out those and the demo race looks different. And that’s what the media buyers realize and point out.

For the entire 2014-2015 TV season, Letterman averaged 2.9 million viewers, a 0.54 18-49 demo rating and a 0.77 25-54 demo rating, but that also included his final week which averaged 8.6 million viewers and much inflated demos. But those numbers would be closely comparable to Colbert’s current season-to-date numbers which include his premiere week ratings.