Entertainment

Colbert is Struggling Already

It's early, but signs point to ratings woes

Is it Leno vs. Letterman all over again with the just-launched Stephen Colbert era?

We all know who won that slugfest.

Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” featured a host willing to poke both the left and the right during his politically charged monologues. David Letterman’s “Late Show,” in comparison, grew increasingly partisan with his liberal leanings in its waning months, ignoring the fact that a late night network show needs a broad base to thrive.

Leno towered over Letterman’s ratings for the bulk of the men’s head-to-head competition. Now, Colbert’s overtly liberal presentation could be repeating TV history.

Colbert took over “The Late Show” last week, scoring some impressive guests in the process. George Clooney. Vice President Joe Biden. Scarlett Johansson. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And more heavy hitters are on the way, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and current GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

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The media fawned despite a seriously weak opening night performance. And yet the ratings thus far are anything but blockbuster. Yes, the Sept. 8 “Late Show” debut scored big, both thanks to a curiosity factor and the Clooney-Bush one-two guest punch. Each subsequent night, Colbert fell back to second place during Week One. Also of note: Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” emerged as the winner in the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic in total.

Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” grabbed Middle America, not just the elites.

Colbert is pulling better numbers than Letterman at this time last year, but by then Letterman was on creative fumes and had lost some of his cultural momentum. People had tuned out, and the younger crowd had never really tuned in.

Colbert thrived while hosting “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central for nearly a decade. Cable shows often appeal to a smaller demographic, finding success with more modest ratings. That meant Colbert’s GOP bashing could snag liberal viewers without worrying if any Red State types were watching.

That isn’t the case with a broadcast network program. Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” grabbed Middle America, not just the elites. He hit both sides — Washington politicians were the punchline — from both parties. His successor, Leno, did the same. Now current “Tonight Show” host Fallon is following suit. He’s more likely to engage in a lip sync battle that insult conservatives or liberals, for that matter.

Fallon effortlessly took the late night baton from Leno last year, and is enjoying solid ratings and social media love as a result.

So where does that lead Colbert, whose partisanship is already obvious to his audience? Time will tell. A quick glance at the late night landscape suggests Colbert has only one way to go from here — and that’s down.

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