Last week, it was announced that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on the Late Show sometime next year. Mostly, fans and TV critics like the move because it gives Colbert a bigger stage. However, there were two issues people have with Colbert moving up. The first is Colbert will ditch his ultra-conservative alter ego and be himself (or “himself”), which some did not like because they love the character and worried the 11:35 PM time slot will hinder Colbert’s skills. The second is a network again picked a white man and a minority and a woman got shutout, again. Although they have the right intentions to want diversity in late night, they should focus somewhere else.
It is true that, at the time, women and minorities did not get a fair chance at a late night talk show gig because there were only a few opportunities out there. In the 1980s, Johnny Carson and David Letterman were they only talk shows in town (we can forget Pat Sajak). Joan Rivers was the first woman to do a late night talk show for FOX, but was cancelled and was banished from the Tonight Show because he had a falling out with Johnny Carson. She later returned to The Tonight Show this year.
In the 1990s, when Jay Leno was chosen over David Letterman for the Tonight Show gig, CBS snatch Letterman to compete with Leno in the 11:35 PM time slot. At the same time, cable was growing and the cable networks were creating their own talk shows.
In the 2000s, cable was beating the broadcast networks in the 18-49 demo on late night, which was led by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Now, it’s more diversified with a woman (Chelsea Handler, although her contract is up this year and she has stated she doesn’t want to renew with E!), a gay guy (Andy Cohen of Watch What Happens Live!) and blacks (Arsenio Hall and W. Kamau Bell, who was cancelled on FXX last year). When Leno and Letterman stepped down, this was supposed to be the best chance to have a women or minority in place, but you have to know the business behind the network.
For NBC, they were willing to give control to all the late night shows to Lorne Michaels. In the process, if you used to work for Lorne, it’s a likely chance you getting a late night gig. This is why Jimmy Fallon moved up to the Tonight Show and then SNL writer/cast member, Seth Meyers to Late Night.
For CBS, Leslie Moonves is a traditional guy. He wanted someone who can do a 60 minute show who can do sketches, interviews, and discovering new talent. That’s what Moonves saw in Colbert and gave him the job. Moonves believes the 11:35 PM slot is for a traditional talk show, while at 12:35 PM, you can experiment and do whatever you want. It’s likely the best time for a minority or woman to take over (which could happen if Craig Ferguson doesn’t re-upped with CBS).
If you want a minority or woman to be on a broadcast network late night show, they can go to the “mid-majors” and do a talk show on cable or be a writer for one of the late night talk shows. Just look at Merrill Markoe from Late Night with David Letterman. Although Letterman was the face of Late Night, Markoe was the brains of the show.
Of note, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were leading contenders for the Late Show gig, but:
- Do they want to do the daily grind of hosting and producing a late night gig?
- Do they want the job at their point of their careers?
- Do they want to leave the Lorne Michaels cottage industry to go on their own? They can ask Conan about it.
Speaking of that, Colbert’s writing staff is predominantly white and he’s stated he has no idea why. The Colbert Report is interesting because the host is a character who is ultra-conservative. Could it be that the people applied and got the job know a lot about politics and conservatism? We don’t know the answer, but it could be one of the reasons why Colbert’s staff is nearly all white males. Now that Colbert is in the national spotlight, he will get scrutinized for every move: the writers, the format, the sidekick, the music, everything. With a bigger platform, this is where Colbert needs to diversify because he can’t just rely on young people and schtick. He’s going to an older, more diverse demographic. Does he have the writers to do it? Look at SNL this season. The first half of the season, they had no black woman doing Michelle Obama, Olivia Pope, and other black woman characters. Now, they not only hire a face (Sasheer Zamata), but they hired two black women writers to give a different perspective and boosted SNL quality the second half of the season, in my opinion.
To make a long story short for HR purposes, if you want diversity and variety in the workplace, you have to know your company’s identity, philosophy, and audience and if both sides have the conviction to do it. People are upset a minority or woman was not picked. However, there are different avenues for women and minorities to make it big in late night thanks to cable and soon move up to the broadcast networks (we can discuss the demise of the broadcast networks at a different time).
As for Colbert, he wanted to be the heir apparent to Letterman and now he has his shot, but he needs to understand it’s going to be a different audience and his writing staff needs to reflect on that. Normally, companies need to decide quickly to make the necessary changes. Fortunately for Colbert, he has over a year to figure this out.