Skip to main content

Colbert is taking a big risk

By David Bianculli
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
Stephen <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/10/showbiz/stephen-colbert-david-letterman/index.html' target='_blank'>Colbert will take over "The Late Show" upon the retirement of David Letterman </a>in 2015. Colbert's rise includes a number of notable moments. Stephen Colbert will take over "The Late Show" upon the retirement of David Letterman in 2015. Colbert's rise includes a number of notable moments.
HIDE CAPTION
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
Funnyman Stephen Colbert
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Bianculli: Colbert slated to replace Letterman; great for CBS, risky for Colbert
  • He says Colbert brings new late-night essentials: social media savvy, buzz
  • But Colbert could lose edge when he drops persona; will fans follow him, he asks?
  • Bianculli's bet is that Colbert, a smart interviewer, will likely do well as himself

Editor's note: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. He also is TV critic and guest host for NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross." The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN) -- Only a week after David Letterman surprised viewers with his on-air vow to step down from late-night TV in 2015, CBS moved with stunning speed to anoint and announce his replacement: Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

Colbert, who has hosted "The Colbert Report" since 2005 in the tongue-in-cheek character of a pompous political conservative, was quoted by Bill Carter of The New York Times as saying he would be appearing on CBS as himself, not his comic alter ego. Signing the quotable and often controversial Colbert, with his legion of "Colbert Nation" social media fans, clearly is a gain for CBS. But for fans of Colbert, and for Colbert himself, it's much more of a risk.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli

The CBS thought process is easy to deconstruct.

Either the network was going to give the "Late Show" slot, when it opened, to Craig Ferguson, who has toiled loyally in the time slot following it for as long as "The Colbert Report" has been on cable, or to someone else. Ferguson will be 52 next month -- but Colbert, also next month, will turn 50, compared with ABC's Jimmy Kimmel and NBC's Jimmy Fallon, who later this year will turn 46 and 40, respectively. So the issue isn't so much age as, perhaps, buzz, with Colbert's social media savvy giving him the edge.

Why audiences love Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert to succeed Letterman
2007: Stephen Colbert out of character
CBS: Colbert to replace Letterman

The question now becomes, though, how much edge can Colbert bring to CBS, especially without the once-removed antagonistic persona of his Comedy Central blowhard?

Bill Maher offended too many people when he was on a late-night broadcast show, "Politically Incorrect," but the same act has thrived, and taken root, on cable's HBO. Going in the opposite direction, how many edges must Colbert sand off to maintain or increase a loyal audience on CBS?

In character on "The Colbert Report," Colbert is such a smart and funny interviewer that, even out of character, he should prove much better in that department than either of the late-night Jimmys. But unless he generates the same sort of viral videos, most of them musical, that Kimmel and Fallon have presented so successfully, Colbert may struggle to compete.

Colbert is a very strong singer -- even Stephen Sondheim thinks so, and cast him in a concert version of "Company" -- so he could do that sort of thing. But does he even want to?

And will his Comedy Central audience even follow him to CBS? Success in one arena doesn't necessarily translate after a move to another venue. Just ask Oprah.

Personally, I like what CBS is gaining here. The potential for Colbert, who's such a phenomenal workhorse on his current show, to craft a new show for CBS is enticing, and the unknown factor of what he will bring to the program as himself should generate plenty of publicity. For CBS, the move makes sense.

But for Colbert, the transplant could be tricky.

Young viewers -- and he certainly has them -- are fickle, and those who watch him on the more subversive Comedy Central may not be inclined to switch to the less cool CBS just to follow him. And many, like myself, will miss "The Colbert Report" greatly. There's no show on TV quite like it.

(The logical replacement for Colbert, thinking one more step ahead, would be former "Daily Show" correspondent John Oliver, but his new current events comedy show begins later this month on HBO -- so he may or may not be available when the slot opens next year.)

And in addition to losing "The Colbert Report," viewers also are all but certain to lose "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" when his current contract expires -- so that's two entertaining late-night programs that we're losing, just to get a replacement for Letterman. Whether it all ends up being a good exchange for viewers depends on those other replacements, and how good Colbert ends up being at playing a formerly unseen and untested role: himself.

My guess is that, as himself, Stephen Colbert will produce and star in a very good show indeed. But with the show being on CBS in the multimedia climate of 2015, my worry is whether that will prove to be enough.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT