Why CBS Is Replacing David Letterman With Reruns of The Mentalist

Could summer strategy blunt James Corden's momentum?

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How do you follow an icon like David Letterman and his perfect Late Show finale last Wednesday? For CBS, the answer might seem surprising: Simon Baker.

Do not adjust your television sets; CBS is indeed currently airing repeats of The Mentalist, starring Baker, in the 11:30 p.m. late-night time slot Letterman occupied since 1993. In fact, all summer, until The Late Show with Stephen Colbert debuts Sept. 8, the network will show repeats of a different CBS drama each week. The Mentalist will air until early June, followed by shows like NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans, Scorpion and Blue Bloods.

It's an unexpected strategy given how much attention CBS received earlier this year when it enlisted celebs like Will Arnett and John Mayer to guest host The Late Late Show from January to March and bridge the gap between Craig Ferguson and James Corden. 

But, this time around, the network is sticking with the plan it announced in January: 11:30 p.m. this summer (technically the shows start at 11:35 p.m.) is about repeats. And, the network hopes Big Brother and its three summer original series—Under the Dome, Extant and new entry Zoo—will "get people in the mood for watching scripted content at 11:30," CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said at the time. It's a return to what the network once called "Crimetime"—a play on prime time—when it aired from 1991 until Letterman arrived in 1993.

Asked earlier this month if Corden's Late Late Show momentum—last Wednesday's Carpool Karaoke segment with Justin Bieber already has more than 16.9 million views on YouTube—prompted CBS to rethink its strategy, Tassler reiterated that nothing had changed.

"We think there are still plenty of eyeballs out there to catch up on our freshman hits," she said. "We also think James, having built a fan base already, he's got great momentum in terms of the circulation on the viral clips. So, there's a lot of attention put on him right now. We have a lot of people watching CBS during the summer and a lot of people that will watch him at 12:30."

With Corden's viral success, "he's also creating his own momentum a little bit," said Kelly Kahl, senior evp of CBS Primetime. "In a way, we'll just leave well enough alone."

The network had limited options for filling the time slot. Letterman, who owns his show via his Worldwide Pants production company, told the New York Times in April, "When we sign off, we're out of business with CBS." That took Late Show repeats off the table. But, Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media, wonders what might have been if CBS had experimented with moving Corden to 11:30 for the summer.

"People could have found him who may not have watched him at 12:30," he said. "I think Corden is a guy who could work both time periods. He's pretty mainstream for a 12:30 host."

Adgate said CBS' move away from comedy at 11:30—which could drive late-night viewers to Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel or Larry Wilmore—is unlikely to affect the audience for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, thanks to the big promotional push that will lead up to that show's premiere.

"People are going to watch Colbert regardless of what CBS does this summer," said Adgate.

As for the surging Corden, however, "I don't think it's going to help him," said Adgate of the 11:30 decision. That doesn't mean Corden's ratings will take a hit, but some of his momentum could be blunted without Letterman, Colbert or other comedy options serving as a lead-in. However, Corden's current audience should stick with him through the transition. "I think people feel comfortable that he's capable of hosting a late-night show," said Adgate. "He's multitalented; he gets good guests. He gets the second-screen part of hosting a late-night show, which is becoming very important. I don't think it's going to be too detrimental to him."

And, no matter how his show fares this summer paired with the likes of NCIS and Blue Bloods, Corden—along with CBS—knows that the cavalry arrives Sept. 8. 

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.