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‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’ ratings top ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ for the first time

Stephen Colbert attends an event on Nov. 15,

Stephen Colbert attends an event on Nov. 15, 2016, in New York. His "Late Show" won the ratings week of Jan. 30, 2017, according to CBS and Nielsen. Credit: Invision / Charles Sykes

“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” won the week of Jan. 30 in total viewers, according to CBS and Nielsen figures. The big news: That’s the first time “Late Show” has won the viewer crown since the launch week of Sept. 8 of 2015.

Per CBS, average viewership for “Late Show” last week was 2.77 million, up 11 percent from the same week a year ago. Neither show nor network released additional figures. However, industry website — which posted a story earlier Tuesday — reported that “Late Show” edged out leader “Tonight” by just 12,000 viewers.

What’s especially notable: “Tonight” was not in repeat, when a “Late Show” victory would have seemed more logical.

While a week does not a “trend” make, a week does make a statement: Colbert’s “Late Show,” which spent a good part of 2016 in turnaround mode while fighting baseless rumors that it might even switch places with “Late Late Show,” was suddenly the most-viewed show on late-night TV during a week in late January. This is more than bragging rights, put perhaps part of the future foretold. Could “Late Show” eventually emerge as the new king?

As in morning TV, reversals in late-night fortune do not happen quickly, but emerge over months, sometimes over years. David Letterman’s “Late Show” ceded the top position a couple years into its CBS run, never to regain it. Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” has long seemed assured of a run similar to Jay Leno’s.

Or at least until last week. Again, individual weeks mean nothing, but long-term trends do, and “Late Show” has been making gradual inroads. Post election, Colbert’s “Late Show” has been a tightly focused, and utterly reliable, Trump battering ram, and ratings have gradually improved. Other than “Late Night With Seth Meyers” — which airs an hour later — this is broadcast television’s only late nighter that blasts the president day after day, night after night.

In itself, that too is a reversal from Letterman’s “Late Show,” which was more of an equal-opportunity offender, albeit a left to center one.

By contrast, Fallon’s “Tonight” was and remains a reflection of the host, to a degree: genial, anxious to please and constitutionally incapable of blasting anyone, up to and including presidents. Like Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel has edge when it comes to the new president, but a reluctance to draw blood.

So perhaps one question may have to be this, at least for the moment, or until “Tonight” regains leadership: Has Colbert and his “Late Show” tapped something in the national mood, or tapped something in those willing to stay awake each night?

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