Stephen Colbert Caps His Late-Night Resurgence By Stealing the Show at CBS Upfront

Network unveils the first look at CBS All Access’ new Star Trek series

Stephen Colbert, whose 2016 upfront appearance fizzled with buyers, was back on his game this year.
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

During last year’s CBS upfront presentation, Stephen Colbert was little more than a footnote. The network instead gave the 2016 spotlight to his late-night companion, James Corden, who received not one but two extravagant opening production numbers. Meanwhile, Colbert was shoehorned in partway through, delivering a tepid routine that fell flat with the Carnegie Hall audience.

One year later, everything has changed. A reinvigorated Late Show has beaten The Tonight Show in total viewers for 15 weeks straight, and Colbert was once again the center of attention—and greeted enthusiastically by buyers—at this year’s upfront event on Wednesday afternoon. The host stole the show with a song-and-dance number, which started on video and ended up onstage, and a lengthy, hilarious monologue about his success over the past year.

“It’s been a great year for the Late Show. I could not have done it without the visionary, a legend of television, who made the Late Show what it is. Thank you, Donald Trump!” said Colbert.

The host referenced the controversy over his recent joke about Trump, and the president’s reaction to it, noting, “The president recently had some harsh things to say about me. He said my language is not appropriate for the Late Show because kids are watching. Who says only old people watch CBS?”

CBS Corp. CEO and chairman Leslie Moonves hit the nail on the head: “If you think that I love Stephen more now just because he’s No. 1…you’re right!” He reflected on how far Colbert has come since last year’s upfront, telling the audience, “one year ago, who would have thought Stephen Colbert would be winning late-night on CBS, and Bill O’Reilly would be doing a podcast in his underwear?”

Moonves repeated many of the same points about CBS’ resiliency that he made to reporters earlier in the day, claiming that the network is as involved with audience targeting metrics as any competitor. “That old idea of just one coveted demo is so dated. You know, like American Idol,” said Moonves, who revealed that morning that the network had considered bidding on the revival that ultimately went to ABC, but “the economics just made absolutely no sense for us.”

Ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross, who entered by playing along onstage with Late Show house band Jon Batiste and Stay Human (yet another nod to Colbert’s comeback), made the pitch for CBS’ lengthy winning streak in total viewers. “In a world of alternate facts…this simple truth holds: more people watch CBS than any other network,” she said.

Like several of her counterparts this week, Ross played up the advantage of “real people watching your commercials and hit shows with zero fraud, all from a source that you can trust.” She showed an ad for a cruise line that ran next to a YouTube news story about a sinking ship and vowed, “At CBS, we do not let this kind of ship happen to you!”

The event gave a spotlight to the CBS This Morning team, which is closing the gap with Today, and CBS Sports, introducing new lead NFL analyst Tony Romo, who said he wants to pull the curtain back on quarterbacks in the league.

CBS Interactive president and COO Marc DeBevoise hit the upfront stage for the first time to talk about the CBS All Access streaming service. He announced that the first season of the highly-anticipated Star Trek: Discovery has been increased to 15 episodes, and the streaming service will also air an aftershow, Talking Trek.

CBS aired the first trailer for the new series, which will debut in the fall and is set 10 years before the original Star Trek. It’s clear that even though the series is on All Access and not CBS, they didn’t skimp on the production budget.

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