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Why Stephen Colbert Could Be CBS’ Golden Ticket

September 3, 2015 By Brian Lowry

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Talent and timing can be a formidable combination. Throw in media savvy and a get-along attitude, and Stephen Colbert is increasingly looking like the potential answer to CBS’ late-night prayers.

Colbert makes his debut as the host of “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Sept. 8, but has already exhibited considerable media savvy in building anticipation for that day. After dealing with David Letterman’s cranky-old-hermit routine, the network’s marketing/promotion department must feel as if it’s died and gone to Heaven, with Colbert seeming eager to adopt new avenues of getting the word out.

Still, Colbert also appears to be the beneficiary of coming on air at a moment that uniquely suits him, and might provide a logical point of differentiation from the other late-night hosts. Specifically, that’s the topsy-turvy nature of the current presidential election, where the jockeying has taken on an absurdist quality that lends itself to the kind of satire in which Colbert excelled during his near-decade on Comedy Central.

Colbert has already joked about his excitement at having Donald Trump shaking up the Republican race (“dry-Trumping” was the term he used at the TV Critics Assn. tour), but the hunger among candidates for exposure — any exposure, given the comically crowded nature of the GOP field — creates all sorts of possibilities.

While Colbert will obviously be hosting a broader show than the one he oversaw before, his well-honed skills in that arena promise to set him apart foremost from late-night leader Jimmy Fallon, whose canned shtick might make him the preferred home of certain newsmakers but threatens to pale in comparison. (Tellingly, Trump will land on “The Tonight Show” next week, in an early bit of booking-war chess, while Jeb Bush and Joe Biden visit “Late Show.”)

Dealing with politics, of course, carries certain risks, among them disenchanting a segment of the audience. Not surprisingly, the Drudge Report sniffed at Colbert’s decision to book politicians and a Supreme Court justice during his first few weeks, while Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly warned the host about “alienating traditional Americans.”

Yet inasmuch as Colbert’s leanings are already pretty well established, that shouldn’t be much of a concern. Besides, given the fragmented nature of TV viewing in general and late-night in particular, the new host hardly has to be all things to all people in order to succeed — in the same way O’Reilly has managed to do pretty well for himself in the cable universe, despite alienating plenty of progressives.

Actually, the “don’t be political” warning is only the second most fatuous when it comes to those second-guessing Colbert’s prospects, the first being that nobody knows who the “real” Stephen Colbert is, given how long he’s spent playing his twisted cable-TV version.

Funny, however, is funny, and the quick wit that Colbert brought to improvising in character should serve him inordinately well in keeping a talk show running, especially on those nights when the guests or material aren’t quite up to snuff. In addition, Colbert has occasionally stepped out of character to conduct interviews — his fanboy chat with “The Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson comes to mind — and demonstrated himself to be thoughtful, well-rounded and able to engage in the kind of smart conversation, as Letterman could when he was intellectually engaged by the guest, which the promotion-heavy late-night landscape seldom yields.

None of this means Colbert will beat Fallon (although he easily could during this trying-out period). In fact, if history’s any guide, the more vanilla-flavored host has something of a competitive advantage.

Nevertheless he seems well positioned to give CBS both the coolest show in late-night and the one that’s most likely to be linked to and talked about the next day, in no small part due to the void left by Jon Stewart’s departure from “The Daily Show.” Viewed in those terms, whatever the final Nielsen tally, Colbert-CBS 2015 looks like a winning ticket.

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