Something peculiar happened the day after Stephen Colbert and his “Late Show” were seen by about 22 million viewers in the wake of a forgettable but still highly viewed Super Bowl 50 telecast: No one talked about them. And by “talk” one doesn’t simply mean something as mundane as “talk,” but rather “interact,” via the various sundry social media platforms that have come to replace “talk” and which, in total, add up to a “metric” that determines value, even worth. In late night TV, such talk is the coin of the realm.
“Late Show” got a new executive producer Wednesday -- Chris Licht, currently boss of the resurgent “CBS This Morning” -- and Colbert got a new boss, superseding three others who have been with him for years, including longtime friend and mentor Jon Stewart.
Licht now officially has the most important job at CBS, possibly in all of TV -- turn around “Late Show,” and make no mistake, this is a fixer-upper. But first on his list of challenges has to be this business about “talk.”
Of the many baffling issues confronting Colbert and his late night fixer-upper, social media may rank above all. This was the host who was supposed to ride in on social media like a pro surfer on the perfect wave. “The Colbert Report” had a massive footprint in that rarefied realm, so these expectations were reasonable.
Instead, you can almost hear a pin drop instead of the roar of a wave. The metrics are there for all to see. Probably the single best video feature on the post-Super Bowl show was Colbert’s pretaped interview with President Obama. It was clever, meta, strange, interesting, and (most important) funny. To date, that interview has just 532,864 views on YouTube. There have been YouTube videos posted since then featuring cats licking bunnies that have received more views.
Back to YouTube. Colbert’s most viewed video has 15 million views. Pretty good. But it was posted eight years ago, and featured his Emmy presentation with Jon Stewart.
His most viewed “Late Show” video has 7 million views (The Trump vs. Trump debate from last March -- another funny winner).
That’s pretty good.
Until you compare that with “Late Late Show” host James Corden’s most viewed video: the Adele Carpool Karaoke one: 96.5 million views.
For Colbert, that looks pretty bad.
Let’s get off of YouTube for a moment.
What about Facebook “likes?” “Late Show’s” Facebook page has 570,088 likes.
By comparison, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” has 8,613,756 likes.
Suddenly, it doesn’t look “pretty good.”
The parade of metrics goes on -- Twitter, Instagram, and so on. There are hundreds of them, in fact, all measuring esoteric matters like “engagement” and “reach.” But in the late night realm, Colbert lags.
What is going on here?
The answer is both complicated and simple. Because Occam’s razor applies equally to late night TV as much as anything else in life, let’s go with the simple answer: Colbert has struggled to make the adjustment from his Comedy Central alter-ego to his (if you will) real ego on CBS. He has also struggled to make the transition from cable to broadcast television at 11:30.
The Nielsen ratings, which are actually not terrible at all, don’t necessarily reflect this. “Late Show” is still usually in second place among total viewers, but “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has made real inroads and is threatening (sometimes winning); Fallon’s “Tonight” is untouchable.
But the social media metrics reflect his struggle. Social media metrics do not lie -- they are brutally reductive, even cruel, as every teen (or adult) who has tried to boost his or her “likes” well knows, or as every Twitter user who frantically chases elusive followers does as well.
In point of fact, Colbert is likable, and -- occasionally -- so is his “Late Show.” He is undoubtedly an unusual late night host, given to long, twisted excursions that have taken the place of the long established monologue/10-jokes-onto-a-commercial format that have ruled late night for years.
Sometimes these are amusing, sometimes long-winded, sometimes radically off-topic from the topics the rest of America is consumed with. A recent opener, for example, was about Spain’s consideration of shortening siestas from three hours to one hour.
But these are almost always interesting. Colbert has something to say, and what he has to say can be different and unique -- just not necessarily amenable to social media.
His struggles are visible to fans, casual viewers and -- doubtless -- CBS executives alike. Occasionally he looks like he’s battling with himself. Letterman went through the same tortured self-battles back in the mid-90s, when he fell to second place behind Jay Leno’s “Tonight.”
But sometimes, more rarely than often, he’s in a groove: Comfortable, enjoyable to watch, and flat out funny. (His recent “interview” with an animated Trump? Priceless). You say to yourself: THAT’S the Colbert I want to see more of.
Now, it’s Licht’s turn. Formerly with MSNBC and instrumental in the launch of that network’s biggest success, “Morning Joe,” Licht accomplished the impossible at CBS: The morning show success. This had been an also-ran for over 60 years. Even Walter Cronkite -- who briefly and unhappily hosted it -- couldn’t muster a heartbeat here.
But Licht, with the help of Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, has built a genuine competitor to “Today” and “GMA” for perhaps the first time in CBS history.
He’s got a big job at “Late Show.” He’s proven he’s up to the task. Now it’s up to Colbert to prove he is as well.