Though the dance probably started long before we first heard the music, CBS Television has enlisted Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert to be David Letterman's Late Show successor with startling quickness and apparent ease just one week after the late night legend declared his intention to move on. But while CBS moved decisively, there are still more questions than answers about the state of their late night house.
Let's start with what we unequivocally know about Colbert's move to CBS: he's getting Letterman's timeslot. That's it. We don't know if the show will still be called The Late Show, if Worldwide Pants (Letterman's production company) will still have a role producing the 11:35 and/or the 12:35 show, or if the show will be based in New York - though Colbert's current preference for Manhattan would seem to give the apple that is big a bit of an advantage. We also don't know when the transition will occur though, in a statement, Comedy Central said that they "look forward [to] the next eight months of the ground breaking Colbert Report," so we can assume that it will probably be anywhere from 8 months to a year before Colbert's debut on CBS.
Will that debut coincide with another late night departure for CBS, though? Craig Ferguson, whose contract runs through the end of this year, has served both admirably and uniquely as the host of The Late Late Show in the 12:35 timeslot for just shy of a decade. We don't know if Ferguson wanted Letterman's chair or if he was considered for the job, but his actions and the network's actions over these next few months will tell us all we need to know about the fate of a relationship that has endured perennial silver medal status and these sudden Chelsea Handler rumors. If Ferguson does stay, however, it would seem likely that his numbers would get a bit of a "Colbert bump" when the new 11:35 show premieres, much in the way that Late Night with Seth Meyers has benefited from the popularity of Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show; because after almost two months, the only consistent thing about Meyers' Late Night is its ratings success.
Will Colbert be a real challenge to Fallon, though? Naturally, there will be a curiosity factor at the outset, but when the dust clears, it will be anyone's fight even though Colbert is coming into the ring with a slight limp thanks to the talking head/conservative skewering character that he has played on The Colbert Report for 9 years. Simply put, Colbert's selection will anger some viewers from the start and he is going to have to work to separate himself and his comedy from that character to win them over. That may distress some fans of The Colbert Report, but the logistics of this switch mandate such a tonal shift and The Colbert Report's overall brilliance should inspire fans to believe that Colbert is more than a one trick pony and that he is more than capable of creating something fresh, intelligent, and hilarious again.
Speaking of The Colbert Report, this selection also sets off a ripple effect that is going to greatly hamper Comedy Central's late night dominance on cable. Yes, Jon Stewart is the face of Comedy Central as the host of The Daily Show, but Colbert may have been the network's MVP and The Colbert Report may be the better show, often demonstrating a lightness that is dimming with The Daily Show as it inches more and more toward taking itself too seriously.
With John Oliver already gone, the bench is somewhat thin (in terms of experience, not talent) behind Stewart and his wandering eye, but the slot behind Stewart will be coveted and many will watch the network with hope that they widen their search a bit beyond the usual suspects - something broadcast seems to have little interest in.
Really, Comedy Central has a bigger challenge than CBS did because they aren't able to plug a host into a familiar format; on the other hand, their options are wide open and that hunt has only just begun.
The Late Show with David Letterman airs weeknights on CBS @11:35PM. The Colbert Report airs weeknights on Comedy Central @11:30PM.