Stephen Colbert Draws a Big Crowd in His First 'Late Show' Broadcast

CBS and Arguably Oreo Are Big Winners

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Stephen Colbert during the premiere of 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert' on CBS.
Stephen Colbert during the premiere of 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert' on CBS. Credit: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

The Stephen Colbert Era at CBS started with a bang, as the affable talk show host put up big numbers in his Tuesday night premiere.

According to Nielsen, the inaugural broadcast of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" averaged 6.55 million viewers and a 1.4 rating in the adults 18-to-49 demo, eclipsing rivals "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" (2.92 million/0.9) and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (1.75 million/0.4).

The new-look "Late Show" enjoyed its highest delivery of adults 18-to-49 since Jan. 27, 2009 -- when Dave's guests that night included "Lost" actress Evangeline Lilly, future "Late Night" host Seth Meyers and musical guest Andrew Bird -- as long as you discount David Letterman's farewell show. By way of comparison, CBS's 77-minute sendoff of Mr. Letterman drew 13.8 million viewers on May 20, making it the fourth most-watched episode in the program's 22-year history.

While Mr. Colbert's tenure at the Ed Sullivan Theater featured luminaries such as George Clooney, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and a few clever brand integrations, the ratings weren't quite on line with those delivered by Mr. Fallon in his "Tonight Show" bow. That overstuffed hour of television -- walk-ons included New York royalty Robert De Niro, Broadway Joe Namath and Joan Rivers -- scared up a whopping 11.3 million viewers and a 3.8 in the 18-to-49 demographic on Feb. 17, 2014.

Ironically, Mr. Colbert also appeared in Mr. Fallon's first "Tonight Show" segment, earning the biggest laugh of the night after dumping $100 in pennies on the host's desk and barking, "Welcome to 11:30, bitch!"

For all that, the "Tonight Show" reboot enjoyed something of an artificial lift, as it lead out of NBC's coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics. In the run-up to the premiere, the network that same evening delivered 23.5 million prime-time viewers and a 5.6 in the 18-to-49 demo.

Mr. Colbert's jump to broadcast coincides with an ongoing slump in late-night ratings. In the second quarter, the "Tonight Show" fell 10% in total viewers to 3.57 million, while Mr. Fallon's 18-to-49 ratings tumbled 23% to a 1.0. Mr. Kimmel in the same three-month period was flat in total viewers (2.68 million), but his demo deliveries dropped 14% to a 0.6.

Mr. Fallon's biggest advantage over the rest of the late night crowd is his mastery of creating viral videos (see: "Evolution of Mom Dancing," "Lip Sync Battle," "Box of Lies"), and the "Late Show" staff will have to come with their A game if they're to win the battle of hearts, minds and advertisers. But if Mr. Colbert's interactions with Oreo and Sabra hummus are any indication, the new CBS show has the potential to attain viral status faster than a gnarly case of swine flu.

While there's no telling how the "Late Show" will fare in the long run, last night's opener won the Twitter skirmish without breaking a sweat. Per Amobee Brand Intelligence, the show helped cultivate some 73,467 tweets, several of which were focused on the Oreo stunt. The upshot: Telling Donald Trump jokes is like eating Oreos -- it's nearly impossible to stop at just one. (On the other hand, the bit began with a clip of Mr. Trump excoriating Oreo maker Nabisco for cutting jobs in Chicago and hiring in Mexico.)

As Mr. Colbert continues to get comfortable in his new position, his first-week guests promise an intriguing mix of middlebrow yuks and egghead intrigue. Among those who are set to appear on "Late Show" before the week is out are Vice President Joe Biden, actress Scarlett Johansson and entrepreneur/inventor Elon Musk.

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