Credit: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

After Letterman: CBS May Shake Up Late-Night More Than You Think

Instead of a Youth Drive, How About Blowing Up the Format Completely?

By Published on .

While David Letterman's pending retirement presents an opportunity for CBS to bring in a fresh late-night host who can attract a younger audience, the way NBC and ABC have with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, media buyers suggested it might be wise for the Eye Network to buck the trend.

"Younger has been the theme with Conan, Fallon, Seth Meyers and Kimmel, but that might not jive as well with CBS's primetime lineup," said David Campanelli, senior VP-national broadcast, Horizon Media. (TBS created a late-night perch for Conan O'Brien after his brief run hosting NBC's "Tonight Show" ended.)

CBS's audience skews the oldest of the Big Four broadcast networks, with a median age of 57, compared with 53 for ABC, 50 for NBC and 49 for Fox.

Late-night hosts sometimes seem like living representations of broadcasters' brands, airing night after night, often for decades. For CBS, tapping a host with a younger following -- names like Jon Stewart from Comedy Central and Chelsea Handler from E! have already started swirling around -- may not provide the best fit for viewers of shows like "NCIS" and "Blue Bloods."

What if CBS blew up the time slot altogether?

"The worst thing they could do is put on another late-night show in the current format," Mr. Kanefsky said. "CBS has the chance to remake late-night into more of a male destination."

Mr. Letterman, Mr. Fallon and Mr. Kimmel all skew female.

"Right now, no one is thinking about men in late night," Mr. Kanefsky said, suggesting that CBS should look to creating a show he described as "SportsCenter meets a talk show," and move away from the monologues, stunts and guest-on-a-couch format that increasingly saturates late-night. CBS could alternately try bringing in the host of either "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" or "The Colbert Report," both of which skew male.

They also do have younger viewers, for what that's worth. For now, the median age for Mr. Letterman's show is 58.9 -- the oldest in the late-night arena. Other broadcasters have been looking for ways to attract a younger audience to late-night, where viewership has been steadily aging.

NBC moved Mr. Fallon into "The Tonight Show" to replace Jay Leno in February, hoping Mr. Fallon's social media following and viral videos would appeal to younger viewers. Thus far, that seems to be working. In his most recent week, Mr. Fallon pulled a 1.33 rating in the important 18-to-49 demographic, up 75% from the equivalent week a year earlier, and averaged 4.3 million total viewers, up 23%.

The success of Mr. Fallon is certainly something CBS will keep an eye on. And while a younger host may not be a perfect fit for the network's brand, it is certainly what advertisers are seeking, said Lyle Schwartz, managing partner-research, GroupM.

"The prime-time audience and late night audience don't need to be the same," said Dani Benowitz, exec VP-managing partner, integrated investment, UM. "Everyone wants the younger demos."

Mr. Schwartz also noted the early success Seth Meyers has had replacing Mr. Fallon in "Late Night," topping both Mr. Letterman and Mr. Kimmel in the 18-to-49 demo despite airing later, which could bring new advertisers to late-night.

However CBS decides to handle Mr. Letterman's retirement, news of what's next is expected to be a hot topic heading into upfronts, the time when TV networks look to secure ad dollars for the fall season.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said audiences for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" skew female. Their audiences are more male.

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