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Who Does Comedy Central Turn to Now? And Five Other Questions About Colbert’s Departure

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Thanks to some decisive dealmaking on CBS’s part, the world has been spared months of speculation over who will replace David Letterman as host of The Late Show: It’s Stephen Colbert. We also know that Letterman himself was consulted about the choice and approves. “Stephen has always been a real friend to me,” Letterman said in a statement released about an hour after the big announcement. “I’m very excited for him, and I’m flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.” But while two big questions have been answered, plenty of other known unknowns remain — from what this means for Comedy Central to how it will all play out in the ratings. We decided to ponder six outstanding questions in the wake of today’s news, and then rang up a slew of our best TV business sources to get some answers.

1. Did CBS seriously consider anyone other than Colbert?
Officially, yes. “We talked about everybody,” CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler told Vulture this afternoon. And, she adds, plenty of people were interested in the gig (duh). “When Dave announced his retirement, we received many, many phone calls. There was a lot of incoming information.” But Tassler also concedes that the CBS search process had actually been under way, at least informally, for some time. “We knew the day was going to come at some point,” she said, indicating she and CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves had been discussing the post-Dave world for a while.

Indeed, industry insiders believe CBS  began active internal talks about Letterman replacements as far back as last October, when the host signed a one-year contract extension rather than re-upping for multiple years. The short-term nature of the agreement seemed to signal Letterman was ready to move on. Another TV business source familiar with the situation says the Eye then became singularly focused on Colbert about two months ago. “Comedy Central knew CBS was coming after Colbert back in February,” the source says.

Tassler declined to get specific about the host selection process, either the exact timetable of conversations or other possible candidates. She did tell Vulture, however, that neither she nor Moonves met with Colbert in the same room before signing a deal. As for why Colbert ultimately got the gig? “Dave’s a very big seat to fill, and we had to think of who could honor that legacy,” Tassler said. “Stephen stands out above the rest.”

2. What does this mean for Craig Ferguson?
When David Letterman didn’t get to replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he left the 12:30 a.m. slot on NBC to start his CBS show. Now Letterman’s lead-out, Craig Ferguson, has been passed over for the earlier show, just like Dave. Ferguson’s deal with CBS expires at the end of this year, prompting speculation that the Scottish-born host will, like Dave, quit in protest over the “slight.” Tassler did nothing to quiet such talk when we asked her about the situation. “Craig is our 12:30 guy. We’re very happy having him,” she said. But when asked specifically about whether or not Ferguson would stay on beyond his current deal, now that replacing Letterman isn’t an option, Tassler said nothing to suggest he would. “Today is not the day for that,”  she said.

To be sure, that statement doesn’t preclude Ferguson from staying put. But if Ferguson were fine with staying put — and CBS were eager to keep him, not at all a given — it’s hard to believe the very efficient and forward-thinking execs at CBS wouldn’t have already locked him up for a few more years. Ferguson’s show doesn’t do horribly, but its audience is small — around 1.4 million viewers most week, with a tiny 0.4 rating among adults under 50. Ferguson has been affected by Letterman’s declining numbers, of course, and if Colbert surges, it could boost Ferguson. Perhaps CBS execs think they can do better with a fresh new face at 12:35 a.m.? Or maybe the Eye wants to cut costs even more, perhaps putting on reruns of The Talk or a show even more low-budget than Ferguson’s already bare bones production? (It’s literally bare bones: Dude’s got a skeleton as a sidekick.)

Of course, CBS might actually be fine with keeping Ferguson and focusing on launching Colbert; it could be Ferguson who feels slighted and ready to leave. If so, it’s hard to see how he could get a better talk show gig than the one he has now. As talented and respected as Ferguson is, there simply are no broadcast networks with available time slots for him.

3. Is John Oliver kicking himself today?
Maybe! But probably not too hard. Had Oliver stayed at Comedy Central instead of jumping to HBO, he’d likely be a prime candidate to replace Colbert at 11:30 p.m.  Industry insiders suggest Oliver would’ve been fine staying at Comedy Central, even without a promise that he’d one day replace Colbert. Comedy Central, however, wasn’t willing to match the megabucks HBO offered, nor did it know for sure that Colbert would end up at CBS. Oliver’s leap to HBO thus became the best move at the time. And it’s not like Oliver is in any real sense a “loser” in this scenario. “He’s got a great situation,” one veteran exec says. “HBO is paying a ton of money to do the show he wants.”

4. How does Comedy Central replace Colbert?
In the same way Oliver might today be wondering “what if?” Comedy Central execs might like to have Oliver in their roster today, too. And yet, Colbert’s pending departure is hardly a disaster for the network. For one thing, it can now claim to have groomed two of the Big Three late-night hosts, since Jimmy Kimmel got his start on the network’s The Man Show. Today’s news also opens up some great possibilities for Comedy Central’s late-night future. The network seems to have been planning for the possibility of change by introducing the Chris Hardwick–hosted panel show @midnight last fall. The show has done great numbers among the network’s core audience of adults under 35, and its hashtag wars dominate late-night Twitter on a regular basis (with some topics trending well into the next day). Moving Hardwick behind The Daily Show is the least likely option for Comedy Central, but it is an option, and one that would likely deliver decent ratings.

Industry observers think it’s more likely Comedy Central will look to find a new voice to replace Colbert. It could easily draw from its considerable in-house bench (Amy Schumer is already being mentioned, while viral video maestro Daniel Tosh could dominate among young men if he moved out of primetime), or it might go outside its existing universe. If it brings in someone not already under contract, Aisha Tyler’s name has popped up as a talk show candidate before, while a comic such as Aziz Ansari or Donald Glover would bring pre-existing fan bases to the table. Two industry execs we spoke to said Chelsea Handler is unlikely to end up at the network. What’s not clear is whether Comedy Central will want to stick with the fake-news format Colbert borrowed from Stewart, or aim for something else. Doing something experimental would be consistent with its DNA as an alternative comedy channel. As one TV insider told us today, part of Comedy Central’s success “has been doing what the other guys aren’t. The more they can do an alternative to Jimmy and Jimmy, the better.” Either way, expect Comedy Central to stick with 90 minutes of late-night fare.

5. Will a non-white, non-male ever get a network late-night gig?
As noted above, non-white dudes are very much in the mix as Comedy Central looks to fill Colbert’s vacancy. But with today’s news, none of the 11:35 p.m. network shows will be hosted by a female or someone of color for, most likely, at least the next five years or longer. CBS’s Tassler, a Latina woman, says that, at least in the case of CBS, this is not because of any fear of offering the gig to somebody outside the past norm. “We did talk to everybody — all ethnicities, men and women,” she says. “We had a completely diverse group of people being talked about. But you have to make a decision that’s the best choice for each job. And Stephen was just above everyone else.” She also said a network like CBS can’t just think of diversity by time slot. “It’s never just one daypart,” she says. “You always looking across the spectrum, from the moment we start our (broadcast) day in the morning through late-night.” 

It’s also worth noting the non-white guys have been very much in the potential mix of Future Late-Night Hosts for years. Joan Rivers actually was a regular late-night host on a broadcast network all the way back in the 1980s: She was Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host from 1983 until 1986, when she left to start her own show on the fledgling Fox network. Had Rivers not parted with Carson, it’s possible (albeit probably still unlikely) she might have prevented the rise of Jay Leno, and even ended up replacing Johnny. What’s more, Arsenio Hall in the 1990s drew millions of young viewers away from Carson via his syndicated show. The timing wasn’t right for him to jump to broadcast, since Leno was already heir apparent at NBC, and CBS was far too old-skewing to have chosen him over Letterman. But the TV industry embraced Hall for years, with CBS even relaunching his syndicated show last year. Admittedly, this all sounds like excuse-making for broadcasters, and perhaps it is. Lorne Michaels could’ve chosen anyone he wanted to replace Fallon at 12:35 a.m., and he went with someone who had a decade of network late-night experience (Seth Meyers) rather than, say, Handler. But the Hollywood execs we spoke to continue to insist this is all a matter of timing and experience, rather than bias. As one exec told Vulture, “If the right woman or person of color came along, why wouldn’t they hire them?”

6. Who will win the ratings war?
Nobody, and everybody. “Nobody” because, as we’ve said before, the late-night wars ended years ago. In today’s fragmented TV universe, no one network truly dominates the after-hours time slot the way NBC did years ago with Carson. And odds are, no one network ever will decisively “win” again. “They’re all still basically going to be fighting over the same 0.7 or 0.8 demo rating,” one late-night vet says. (One demo rating point equals 1.25 million adult viewers under 50.) That said, Fallon’s fast start indicates he’s got a good chance of doing a bit better than the other network shows, particularly with ABC’s prime-time woes preventing Kimmel from fully capitalizing on the strong buzz around his show. Colbert could very well improve upon Letterman’s weak demo ratings once he arrives in 2015, but it’s not at all a given he won’t turn off some of Dave’s older viewers or that he’ll be able to surpass Kimmel. And no matter how the network shows do, cable’s late-night powers — Comedy Central and Adult Swim — are likely to end up once again outdrawing the broadcast shows among key demos once the hoopla surrounding the new guys dies down sometime late next year.

And yet while no show is likely to end up super dominant, “everybody” in the daypart could yet find a way to win. This may seem Pollyannaish, but the fact is, late night is not some zero sum game in which only a couple of players can succeed. Letterman thrived on CBS for two decades even though he was consistently No. 2 behind The Tonight Show. Comedy Central and Adult Swim’s emergence on the scene took away audience share from the network shows, forcing them to slash their overhead. But now, all the network shows operate on relatively lean budgets, with none of the main hosts pulling down the $30 million or so Jay and Dave made at the top of the market. They’ve adjusted to the new world, and while ratings are likely to grow even smaller in coming years, “These shows are still a lot cheaper than doing a drama or something else,” one producer says. And while it’s possible one of the 12:35 a.m. shows could yet bite the dust — if not now, perhaps five years from now — there still seems to be plenty of room for Jimmy, Jimmy, Stephen, Jon, and even a few more hosts and shows to all do just fine.

6 Questions About Stephen Colbert’s Departure