How long should it take for a new PD to have an impact on a station, its big show, or its brand health? At what point does the honeymoon end and expectations ratchet up?
Some say it takes a year, but in this instant gratification media world in which we live, it might be more like six months. Or even less. In the case of CBS-TV’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 90 days may be enough. That’s the accelerated time frame in which “showrunner” Chris Licht has already begun to move the needle.
We wrote about Chris getting the “PD” job on a show that sorely needed a jumpstart this past April. Up against Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, the late night competition is intense. And the Colbert persona clearly required attention after making the leap from the Comedy Central character who was all about political parody and bombast.
But last week, Colbert and team stepped up and started to make the kind of noise and create the type of content that can turn what appeared to be a miscalculation on the network’s part into a contender. And Licht engineered this feat in the same way that great programmers are tasked with establishing a weak brand or breathing life into a tired personality.
The Late Show’s tactics last week are right out of the Programming 101 playbook, and they provide lessons for all of us coaching personality shows on the radio side.
Here’s what Licht did last week and how he did it:
It’s about the big event
It’s not every day when personalities and shows have a golden opportunity to shine because of an external story or event. That was the case with Colbert’s team who correctly saw the Republican National Convention as that moment in time. Looking back, the buzz about last week’s happening in Cleveland had been long anticipated. Most observers expected it to be an unpredictable, news-making event. And it didn’t disappoint. Every year, there’s at least one event of this magnitude that occurs in virtually every local market, opening up these same types of possibilities. Recognizing the opportunity and devoting resources to making a statement is precisely what Licht pulled off last week on The Late Show.
The decision was made to do something that really hasn’t been done since Colbert moved to the late night hours on CBS-TV: he adopted his popular “Colbert Report” persona. Up to this point, the Stephen Colbert we now see on The Late Show is much different than the guy who parodied Bill O’Reilly and other bombastic political commentators on Comedy Central. But coinciding with the RNC, reprising the characters was a risk worth taking.
Play to your strengths
Colbert is a talented guy, but he’s made his name on political satire. In theory, that put him ahead of his other late night competitors for coverage and treatment of the Republican event. Doubling down on what got you to the dance is a smart move. But it’s not always easy to convince talent to go back to the basics and play to their strengths. The Late Show did that consistently last week.
Be in the moment
The Late Show (like all the others in this category) “tape live” late in the afternoon. Colbert typically records each night’s show around 5:30 pm. But fireworks occur in real time, and for the RNC, that means prime time. So throughout the convention, The Late Show went live each evening following the convention happenings that night. This meant a lot more work, real-time scrambling and stress, and planning, but as Colbert himself put it, it created “a sense of urgency” for the show.
And the bet paid off. Throughout the Republican event, odd and newsworthy things occurred: Trump’s dramatic entrance to “We Are The Champions,” Melania Trump’s speech and its aftermath, the Ted Cruz betrayal, and the Ivanka Trump intro followed by the mega-acceptance speech. Sometimes you have to break format in order to truly benefit from a huge event. And to do so means going real-time.
Book big guests
If you’re going to do it, do it with celebrity. Throughout the week, Colbert’s producers snagged big guests, all of whom brought their fame and their opinions. From Senator Elizabeth Warren to comedian Lewis Black to billionaire shark Mark Cuban, Colbert was able to shift the weight of the show to A-level guests.
Develop great characters
You have to move quickly because players like Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, and others are new to the American media mainstream. That was most definitely the case with Melania Trump whose first real appearance ended up fraught with controversy. The New York Times tells the story of how Colbert discovered Melania impersonator and Broadway star, Laura Benanti, and in the process, seized the moment.
It turns out she was booked on The Late Show back in March where Colbert noticed the resemblance to Trump’s third wife. Fast-forward to last week, and the frantic and serendipitous story of how Benanti rushed back to New York City to parody Melania Trump’s speech. In every market, there are characters, impersonators, and other bizarre people who can contribute to a show But it’s critically important to be looking for this talent, and knowing it when you see it.
Give up the stage
Perhaps the high point of Colbert’s week of live shows following the RNC was bringing back friend, mentor, and Comedy Central teammate Jon Stewart. It was a surprise, it wasn’t expected, and it was a sign that Licht and Colbert understand the value of a great throwback moment. And in order to pull it off, Colbert literally had to give up the desk, and give Stewart his moment to do what he does best. For the host of a network talk show, this was a generous and brilliant move to amp up the ratings and jumpstart his show.
So the big question is whether Licht can begin to turn around the ratings malaise. As we know, this is an arduous process and fans of the other shows don’t typically abandon their favorites even when something interesting is happening across the street.
But for a show trying to find its voice, The Late Show may finally be on a path by seizing the opportunity revolving around Donald Trump and the Republican Convention. When you think about some of the basic tools and tactics they used last week, many apply to what radio shows are constantly trying to accomplish.
Many have already started picking the winners and losers of last week’s event in Cleveland. For Stephen Colbert and his new “showrunner,” Chris Licht, you have to think they’re now sitting in the win column.
It will be fascinating to see how this team handles the Democrat’s version this week in Philadelphia. Coming up with a Debbie Wasserman Schultz character shouldn’t be all that difficult.
I have to admit that, for a change, I’ll be watching.
Postscript: Since this blog was posted, we came across this article in AdWeek confirming Colbert’s ratings boost last week. Stay tuned.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
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