CBS should have no problem drawing at least 110 million viewers to its Super Bowl 50 broadcast on Feb. 7, but the network has even grander ambitions for what could turn out to be a record-breaking audience. For the first time, the network has given over its coveted post-Super Bowl slot not to one of its prime-time series, but to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the biggest spotlight ever for a late-night broadcast.
It's a huge vote of confidence in—and an even bigger opportunity for—Colbert, who has accomplished nearly everything that CBS hoped for since he left Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, on which he satirized conservative hosts like Bill O'Reilly for nine years, to take over for David Letterman, who retired last May. Since launching in September, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has grown 18 percent in total viewers (3.16 million), 67 percent in adults 18-34 and 60 percent in adults 18-49 (0.8 rating) versus last season, and has overtaken Jimmy Kimmel Live as the No. 2 show in adults 18-49. (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon remains comfortably in the lead this season, with 3.88 million total viewers and a 1.09 demo rating.) Most importantly, Colbert has made late night a lucrative daypart once again for CBS. During the fall, the network doubled its Late Show ad rates from a year earlier, according to SQAD NetCosts.
The network hopes Sunday's broadcast will continue Colbert's momentum and help The Late Show gain even more ground on Fallon. "It's going to be the greatest late-night, post-Super Bowl show ever," said Colbert of the episode, which will feature Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Margot Robbie, Key & Peele, and at least one surprise guest. "The only, but also the greatest."
As he prepares for his post-Super Bowl debut, Colbert talks about how The Late Show has evolved since September, his biggest fear about moving to CBS, why he loves brand integrations and which other late-night host he is "jealous" of.
Adweek: Why are you doing the post-Super Bowl show from New York as opposed to near the game in San Francisco?
Stephen Colbert: I think a live show is hard enough, and you want to do it in friendly confines. Also, I don't know if you've seen what we've done to the Ed Sullivan Theater, but we're like a family that bought a beach house. We're not going on vacation anywhere until we get our money out of the beach house.
What do you have planned for the show?
Everything's about Super Bowl. We'll do our live analysis, and we'll have our live analysis of the most important thing: who won the commercials. And we'll have our own Super Bowl commercial. We'll be watching the game and writing the show as we go. We practiced doing the Patriots-Broncos [AFC Championship game] because that's something we've never done before. We've written jokes live about an election, but how do you write jokes about a Super Bowl? We've got to turn the jokes around in 20 minutes.
For many of those viewers, it will be the first time they've seen your show.
Oh, yeah. It's 10 times our audience, and I want people to see an indicative show because I really like our show. And I don't want to bait and switch. If you like what you saw, tomorrow is going to be a different subject, but this is what you're going to get.
This will likely be the largest audience you'll ever have. Are you nervous?
Doing a show for 3 million people or doing the show for 25 million people, we can't feel the difference—it's doing it live that's the difference. We did one just for schnicks [last month] because no one had ever done The Late Show live. The energy is fantastic. If I didn't have to stay up until 11:35 to do it, I would do it every day. Now we're doing the show absolutely to the second, live to tape because we love that energy so much and don't want to lose it.
That's a huge switch from your early shows last September, where tapings ran long and you had to quickly edit the shows down.
We were super-long because doing an hour instead of doing a half-hour and working with 90 people as opposed to 210 people, that's a huge difference. We slowly wrestled Goliath to the ground here. Now we start at 5:35 p.m. exactly—the bell rings, I go out. At 6:35, I'm done.
When were you finally able to take a breath and say, OK, I've got a handle on the new show?
There wasn't really much time for reflection until Thanksgiving when we had our first dark week. That was our chance to go, OK, what the hell just happened? We spent about an hour and a half every day for the first three days watching game tapes. We took notes and every department head was allowed in, and that's when the show took a turn for me. I went, oh yeah, we know how to do the show. Now, do we know how to change it? Because the imperative of [taping] every day and having no Fridays [off] makes it very hard to make the changes.
How have you changed the show since then?
Those next two weeks after Thanksgiving were a totally different approach to the guests. We changed the way we shot it. We changed the rhythm of the performance. We pulled the graphics out because I can't improvise with graphics—I can't play with my script if there's an OTS [over-the-shoulder graphic] here. It's improvising with a robot; it won't let me change the subject. I understand why you have an art card now. It seems old-fashioned—Carson held up an art card—but I can put it down or hold it up if I want. You're in control.
What was your biggest fear about moving over from Comedy Central?
That I wouldn't like my own show. You cannot pretend that you like your own show to the audience. They will smell the lie. This is a revelation I had at the old show: We do the show for each other, and at the end of the day, I have the privilege and responsibility to share with the audience what we did. But if there's no joy in putting the show together, then you're lying to the audience. And if I didn't like it, then there would be no worth doing it. Well, I have a little crush on my show. Oh, she's kind of a cute girl. I hope she likes me!
Do you miss your Colbert Report persona?
No. When I first started interviewing people, like when I had Jeb [Bush] or [Donald] Trump or [Ted] Cruz on, he'd sit on my shoulder, like the devil on my shoulder. And he would say, "Let me do this one. I can make every sentence a joke." I just wouldn't let him out. I went in the opposite direction. One of the things that I enjoy about the show is there is no obligation for me to have a sword and shield. I'm so happy to lay that thing down by the riverside. So, it was easy for me to tell him to go away.
You're collaborating with the ad sales team and brands, which is something your predecessor never did.
I'm not opposed to it. The way I look at it is, of all the things that CBS would want me to do, integrated advertising is the thing that is most appealing because it's content for me. We've done small ones already. We've got a couple of things we hope to do for the Super Bowl as well, but we're still finding the right company who wants to play ball.
What's your approach to integrations?
It's like, the beast is hungry. You've got the first 30 seconds of my script all ready, and I can make jokes about what it is you wanted me to say? That's fantastic because a lot of our life is what is advertised to us. The advertisement itself is the content of our lives, and it's crazy to not acknowledge it. If someone's going to allow you to acknowledge it and even make fun of it, that's perfectly fine. I think ads are a great source of comedy that everybody can relate to. That's a perfectly lovely Subaru ad. I'm not entirely sure it needed to make me cry. Why is Cheerios trying to break my heart? I just want something with fiber!
You did that Sabra hummus integration on your very first night.
I said, well if I'm ever going to do them, I'll do it in the first show. Because it also acknowledges, OK, something is different here. I love being a company man, to a fault probably. I'm like, fuck yes, CBS! I've moved into a bigger apartment, and I don't mind wearing the badge. Nobody tells me these numbers, but they made coin on that and it suited a joke we already had. Well, that works fine.
Letterman was famously obsessed with ratings. Are you the same way?
I would like a lot of people to watch our show. You want people to come to your kid's play. I don't check them because all I can do is do the best show I can. CBS tells me they're perfectly happy, and whatever they are, they're way more than I used to get. And CBS tells me they're more than Dave got. So everybody's happy as far as I can tell.
Having clips go viral has become such an essential part of late night. Do you feel pressure to deliver those viral moments?
No. It's nice when that sort of thing happens, but CBS hasn't asked for it. For me, putting that cart before our horse as we're finding exactly what we want to do, that way lies madness. You can't create something for distribution; you have to create something because you like it.
What else do you hear from CBS?
They've been very supportive. The notes from the network have been practically nonexistent. I thought I would go from cable—where it was like we were putting out a college newspaper where they gave us paper and ink, and at the end of the year they said this is your budget for paper and ink next year—and I'd come over here and I feared I would be a dog on a leash. Dave owned the show; I don't own the show. Dave was his own entity, an island unto himself; I'm not. But regardless of their promises, I was afraid somebody would yank my chain. No one has yanked my chain. Now that I think of it, that actually was my biggest fear.
CBS really likes you and The Late Late Show host James Corden as a late-night team. You've done promos together. Is more collaboration planned?
We're going to do some live tosses. I would do more with him if I had Fridays [off]. He doesn't do shows on Fridays. Man, I look at the things that he's able to do and I'm so jealous because I remember what it was like to be able to go out into the field. His Carpool Karaoke is fantastic. I'm like, Jesus, I wish I had that time. I remember that guy!
One thing that distinguishes you from your competition is your substantive interviews and eclectic guests. That's something we used to see a lot more of than we do now.
Well, I would like to return to that. I consumed a lot of that when I was younger: Johnny, Steve Allen's second show, Jack Paar, [Dick] Cavett. I like talking to actors, but I also like talking to [civil rights activist] DeRay Mckesson because that conversation was a gift to me. If I didn't have a late-night show, I'm not sure I'm sitting down with DeRay Mckesson to talk about Black Lives Matter or white privilege. And I'm allowed to make discoveries in this context that I could never before. So yeah, we want to do different interviews because I believe that's what the show provides you, not because this format resists it.
That was evident all the way back to your third show, when Vice President Biden opened up about the death of his son.
When Mr. Biden left, I said to my executive producer, "Oh, that nice man just gave me my show." Because I had to be my deepest self to receive the gift he gave us of sharing that. That has happened multiple times over the past five months. Those are the moments I go, oh, this is why I took the show.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.