CBS Hopes Post-Super Bowl Slot Will Boost Colbert

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

Despite the rumblings of disappointment on the part of media buyers and some of their clients, it is not likely that there will be a mass exodus of advertisers. That’s because the late night daypart, particularly on broadcast television, is hot right now.

“For the past few years with Fallon and Kimmel coming into the daypart, demand for ad inventory has grown,” one buyer says. “And there is a limited amount available. Kimmel is sold out pretty much for the rest of the season and you can still get into The Tonight Show because the ratings are so strong that NBC can put back into the market some of the ad time it held back for makegoods.

So why is late night so hot? Buyers say one reason is the live content every night, along with highlights from the shows being picked up on social media platforms the next day. That gives the show’s added exposure for advertisers.

“There is a lot of buzz surrounding late night and the guests and that has driven dollars there,” one buyer says. “Plus, there are no content concerns. Ad buys are safe.”

So will the big promotional push for Colbert, whose show will be the first late night program ever to lead out of a Super Bowl game, help generate a larger audience going forward? Buyers doubt it.

One buyer says much like most of the programs that have led out of Super Bowls in the past, Colbert will get a short range boost in viewership, but it will eventually fall back to its pre-Super Bowl levels.

“The late night daypart is very habit driven as to what people watch,” one buyer says. “Some new viewers may tune in to Colbert for a while, but eventually the viewership levels will fall back to their original numbers.”

CBS, however, is hoping that leading Colbert out of the Super Bowl telecast will draw a large influx of new viewers Sunday who will then stick with the show on a regular basis.

Last year, NBC lead its drama, The Blacklist, out of the Super Bowl and drew 25.7 million viewers. Then it aired The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon leading out of that, beginning at 12:13 a.m. and it averaged 9.8 million viewers. But TheBlacklist really didn’t get a major regular ratings season bump.

Following the 2014 Super Bowl, Fox led out sitcom New Girl and it drew 26.3 million viewers and the last time CBS aired the Super Bowl, in 2013, the network televised an episode of drama Elementary, which pulled in 20.8 million viewers. CBS also aired The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson leading out of Elementary that began at 12:47 a.m. and averaged just 4.4 million viewers.

Historically, leading a show out of the Super Bowl has rarely helped that show with a sustained increase of audience. In 2010, CBS led the reality series premiere of Undercover Boss out of the Super Bowl and it drew a solid 38.6 million viewers. While the series went on to have a successful first season, and is still on the air, it was not considered to be a major hit after the first season and never duplicated its first season numbers.

In 2011, Fox tried to revive the audience of musical dramedy Glee and it drew 20.7 million viewers leading out of the Super Bowl, but the regular season audience never got much of a bump.

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One exception is the CBS reality series Survivor, which the network launched leading out of the 2001 Super Bowl. It drew 45.3 million viewers and is still one of the most-watched shows on the network. CBS also aired Survivor post-Super Bowl in 2004 and it drew 33.9 million. The 2001 one Super Bowl leadout of the Survivor series premiere was the second most-watched post-Super Bowl entertainment show ever. No. 1: NBC’s Friends in 1996, which drew 52.9 million.

Clearly, CBS is hoping that history will be proven wrong this time around, and that Colbert mimics the sustained post- Super Bowl ratings boost of Survivor instead of viewers voting him off the island.

[Correction: Feb. 5, 2015: An earlier version of this story mistated the show's title as Late Night with Stephen Colbert, not Late Show with Stephen Colbert.]

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