The Late-Night TV Wars Are Officially Over

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Let's just be friends! Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Tuesday’s inaugural installment of Late Show With Stephen Colbert easily drew more viewers than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live, a not-at-all surprising outcome given the months of publicity surrounding the former Comedy Central host’s anointment as David Letterman’s successor. Equally unsurprising will be the drop-off in Colbert’s audience in the coming days and weeks, as that new-show smell wears off and pop-culture rubberneckers peel away. It is at this point when, if history is any guide, those of us who report on TV for a living will be tempted to begin weighing in with analyses of who’s ahead in the ratings, who’s winning the battle for buzz, and all manner of riffs on the battle for post–prime-time supremacy. But here’s the thing: While Colbert, Kimmel, and Fallon are obviously rivals of a sort — each man is doing a comedy-variety show in the same time slot — the competition among them simply doesn’t rise to the level of past matchups. The players are different, the stakes have changed, and the TV universe is an entirely different place. Welcome to the postwar era of late-night TV. 

This new détente was pretty clear even ahead of Colbert’s first show yesterday. Shortly before the new CBS host took the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater Tuesday, Fallon sent out a friendly, faux-snarky tweet to his new slot rival. “Congrats on your first show and hopefully dozens more,” the NBC host joked. Then, poking fun at himself (and his recent accident): “Break a finger.” In the past, Fallon’s electronic missive might have been read as an opening salvo, a warning shot of sorts designed to put the new guy on notice. This time, it was a prelude to something even more remarkable, and unthinkable in decades past: not one, but two Fallon cameos on Colbert’s very first show. As journalist Bill Carter, who’s written two books about late night, noted on Twitter right after, “These guys are making love, not war.”

It’s not that the late-night TV landscape is about to be transformed into some sort of socialist paradise, with each show considered an equal success and every player happy with their place in the post–prime-time pecking order. The fundamentals still apply: Viewers will ultimately choose to watch one show more than the others; advertisers will similarly invest a bigger share of their budgets with a particular program (which may or may not be the same as the viewer favorite, depending on the demographic makeup of the Nielsen leader). Cameos aside, the hosts (and certainly their staffs) will all want to put on a bigger, better show than anyone else, whatever niceties they may express about respecting their peers or playing their own game. Bookers will fight to get big guests first, or to match an appearance by one potential president (Jeb Bush on Colbert) with another (Hillary Clinton on Tonight next week). 

There’s a huge difference, however, between shows slugging it out for guests or ratings and the highly personal, high-stakes conflict that until recently defined the late-night time slot. Ever since 1986, when Joan Rivers left her gig as Johnny Carson’s permanent guest-host on Tonight to do her own (ill-fated) show for the fledgling Fox network, competing at 11:35 p.m. (and sometimes even at 12:35 a.m.) has meant engaging in something of a blood sport. The phrase late-night war may have been a media creation designed to sell magazines and newspapers, but it was rooted in fact. Recall:

• The earliest skirmish came when Carson famously froze out Rivers for daring to take him on. Johnny’s producers did all they could to limit her access to top-name guests, thus crushing her chances for success. He never spoke to her again, and even after Rivers’s show failed, he banned her from appearing on Tonight during his final years on the show. So powerful was the feud, Rivers remained persona non grata at Tonight throughout Leno’s tenure as Carson’s successor. (Fallon ended the ban before Rivers died.)

• When Leno replaced Carson in 1992, he immediately found himself at odds with Arsenio Hall, whose syndicated late-night show was stealing away younger viewers. After Hall half-joked to Entertainment Weekly about his plan to “kick Leno’s ass,” Leno and his producers went nuclear, threatening to ban celebrities from The Tonight Show if they appeared first on Hall’s show. Hall returned fire with a jaw-dropping j’accuse in EW in which he blasted Leno personally for “the two-faced approach of someone I had, until that point, called a friend.” (The two men made up years later.)

• During his very rocky early years as host of NBC’s Late Night, Conan O’Brien was often the subject of cancellation rumors — mostly because some execs at the network very much wanted to be done with him. But O’Brien also had enemies on the staff of another new late-night show launched (first on MTV, then in syndication) around the same time as his: The Jon Stewart Show. I was a young reporter at the New York Post at the time, and more than once, sources connected with Stewart would feed me negative information about O’Brien’s ratings, performance as host, and life expectancy at NBC. (There may have also been suggestions that Stewart was being eyed as a possible replacement for O’Brien, though back then, everybody under 35 with a comedy background was being chatted up for such a role.) There’s no evidence this “spat” included either Conan or Stewart themselves; indeed, O’Brien appeared on Stewart’s show before it was canceled.

• O’Brien’s intramural smackdown with Leno, on the other hand, was very real. And very, very public. In case you’ve forgotten, Leno agreed to step down in favor of O’Brien, but rather than retiring from TV, he agreed to do a prime-time show for NBC. When that flopped, Peacock execs — scared Leno would jump to Fox or ABC — forced out O’Brien and reinstalled Leno as host of Tonight. (O’Brien’s ratings, particularly among older viewers, weren’t the best, but they weren’t awful.) The whole affair grew so toxic, it even forced other late-night personalities to choose sides, with Kimmel and Letterman rallying to defend O’Brien (and mercilessly bash Leno).

• Finally, and most famously, there was the showdown between Leno and Letterman — a battle so epic, it spawned a book and a TV-movie based on that book (Carter’s The Late Shift). Both men believed they were Carson’s rightful heir, particularly Letterman, who was Carson’s personal choice to replace him. When Jay won, Dave decamped to CBS and took on Leno directly with Late Show. Even though Leno emerged as the clear ratings champ within a few years, the sniping and animosity between the men lasted to some degree right up until Letterman signed off in May. (There’s a reason Leno wasn’t on any of Dave’s final shows.)

The absence of any real animus among today’s hosts isn’t the only reason we’re probably not headed for hostilities again in late night. There’s also much less at stake for the networks involved now, which, in turn, places less of an onus on their hosts. Sure, ABC, CBS, and NBC all want their guys (and, yes, they’re all still guys) to draw the biggest crowds and get the most hits for their viral videos, because that will mean bigger revenue. Networks really, really like to make money. But late night (like much of TV these days) isn’t a zero-sum game anymore, and hasn’t been for some time. CBS settled for so-so profits from Letterman for more than a decade and never once seriously considered replacing him, even though his Late Show fell well behind not only The Tonight Show but, among all important younger viewers, cable competitors such as Adult Swim and Comedy Central. Eye executives would no doubt love it if, a year from a now, Colbert was regularly beating Fallon and Kimmel, either among all viewers or with key demographic groups. Similarly, they’ll probably be a bit bummed if Colbert somehow was pulling in fewer viewers than Letterman in his later years.

But either way, the Eye network stands a very good shot at making significantly more money than it did under Dave. That’s because Colbert’s show, with a younger staff and a host who’ll pull down less money than Dave, will be cheaper for CBS to produce than Letterman’s Late Show. Just as important, CBS now owns Late Show; under Dave, it leased the program from Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company. This opens up new revenue streams for CBS that didn’t exist during the past quarter-century. “Colbert will be profitable,” CBS CEO Leslie Moonves told Vulture recently.  Despite last night’s running gag about Mentalist reruns, Moonves won’t be making panicked phone calls to Colbert’s producers if ratings take a hit six months from now (though he’d probably offer some advice). CBS is playing a long-term game with Colbert and Late Show, which means, barring Nielsen disaster, the network will give him plenty of time to build an audience. 

A similar scenario holds true at the other networks. At ABC, Kimmel has never been No. 1 for any extended stretch, but that hasn’t kept the network from continually renewing his show — or from making lots of money with it. Given the tonal similarities between Letterman and Kimmel, ABC no doubt hopes some of Dave’s die-hard fans will gravitate to Kimmel once they’ve checked out Colbert. But even if they don’t, it’s unlikely ABC would suddenly give up the stability Kimmel supplies it and try to launch some new personality at 11:35 p.m. Fallon has the most to lose in the Colbert era — when you’re No. 1, you can only go down — but he’s in no danger if his current Nielsen lead shrinks, or even evaporates, with the new challengers. NBC endured so much drama during the Leno-Conan-Leno era that it simply won’t risk any further upheaval. Should Fallon fade a bit post-Colbert, NBC will likely respond with more marketing and promotion, and plenty of patience. Remember: Tonight briefly gave up decades as the dominant late-night show when Letterman first launched Late Show in 1993. At the time, many figured the dynamic had permanently changed, and that Leno had weakened the dynasty Carson had built. Soon enough, Tonight returned to the top. NBC won’t easily forget that lesson.

There’s one final reason the skirmishes ahead in late night won’t rise to the level of “war.” During the days of Johnny, and for most of the Jay and Dave era, broadcast TV was the biggest game in town, by a lot. Everything the networks did mattered. Late-night ratings, as in prime time, were much bigger. Today, the stakes — and expectations — are much lower. Audiences under 35 are much more likely to check out Adult Swim, Comedy Central, or Conan O’Brien on TBS than tune in to watch a guy in a suit make jokes about politicians. Many older viewers, meanwhile, have discovered that they don’t need to be tethered to a talk show before turning in for the night: Watching Tom Cruise tout doing his own stunts has far less appeal when an entire season of Transparent or Orange Is the New Black is ready to be binged on demand. Plus, there will soon be even more alternatives to broadcast late-night shows: TBS is launching a half-hour with Samantha Bee, while Netflix will do its own on-demand spin on the talk show with Chelsea Handler. All of these changes could eventually conspire to threaten the existence of the big broadcast late-night network show as we’ve known it. But for now, it means Colbert, Fallon, and Kimmel don’t really have much time to worry about beating the other guy by a tenth of a ratings point. The much bigger battle for them will likely be making sure late-night comedy shows remain a valid genre at all in the years ahead.