Like proper late night TV show hosts, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert opened their monologues Friday night by taking a swipe at Donald Trump.
Fallon’s commentary focused on a news story about a data breach at one of Trump’s hotel chains, to which Fallon added in a Trump-like tone, “I’m gonna build a ‘uge firewall. And I’m gonna make the hackers pay for it.”
Colbert took a more general approach, saying Trump was generally “offensive” and “divisive” and would “make a terrible president.” He quickly followed by saying, “Don’t leave me. If you go away I’m gonna have to talk about those other boring people.”
The differing tone in each man’s opening monologue is obvious. Both employed comedy to discuss a timely political topic—but only one took a swing in the process.
A notable turn from the typical late-night fodder, Colbert has been pleasing the pundits with his thought-provoking approach. (The Atlanticdescribed Colbert in early September as the Charlie Rose of Late Night.) While Fallon wants to be the guy to “make you laugh,” Colbert endeavors to have fun with his friends, which he notes, “Sometimes means talking about things you care about.”
Colbert is CBS’s attempt to catch up
The how, when and where of entertainment consumption has dramatically changed with the emergence and dominance of disruptive services like Netflix. With a little imagination, it’s easy to surmise that network TV has been a bit nervous, and in the last few years, that nervousness has been palpable. The controversial hiring and then dismissal of Conan O’Brien after only 146 episodes was reason enough to shift all eyes toward CBS and send the rumor mill swirling when David Letterman announced he was retiring from the Late Show.
From the outside looking in, Colbert as Letterman’s replacement was a risky power play. Could a man who’s accustomed to flagrantly ribbing his hosts under the guise of a power-hungry conservative talk show host be taken seriously?
So far, so good.
The most recent ratings show Fallon with a pretty comfortable lead as the No. 1 late night talk show host, but Colbert has accomplished something to make any network green with envy: he’s already lowered the average viewing age from 60 years old (under Letterman) to 58. Colbert had 3.2 million viewers compared to Fallon’s 3.6 million. At this time last year Fallon led with 1 million more viewers than the Late Show.
Though most people are expecting Fallon to keep hold of his No. 1 slot for the foreseeable future, there’s much to be learned from him, Colbert and the decisions of networks like CBS and NBC.
Novelty and invention in Late Night TV
CBS and NBC are vying for the same audience, which means the pressure’s on not just in their product but also in their marketing. Their goals are different, their approaches vary one from the other, but as is often the case, success comes down to who’s willing to make a gutsy move. (Success, perhaps, is a relative term to most people reading this blog. Obviously, each network is lapping in the spoils of charismatic show hosts.)
What we’re seeing here is the difference between novelty and invention.
Novelty is the act of being new, original or unusual. Imagination is the act of inventing a process or device. Imagination is also described as “creative ability.”
Fallon is an admittedly charming, friendly host who employs his personality in new or original ways—but all under the same, tried-and-true mission: to make people laugh, and by extension keep ratings high, profits high, etc. It’s important to note that while this is successful for the folks who work with Fallon, making people laugh—though especially important in our world today—is not inventive.
Colbert—under the cautious wing of CBS executives—is pulling Late Night television into a more thoughtful space. He’s making Americans sit up a little in bed, to pay attention to the TV and perhaps to the world around them. And this is where we see invention emerge.
Historically speaking, successful thought-provoking television was always preceded by audience members who were already engaged in the world around them. This meant that entertainment and news was kept stringently ordered: the “serious” stuff was kept for news channels, newspapers, business magazines, and the “funny” stuff was pushed to late night television. Colbert and CBS are changing that. Because they are choosing to merge politics and entertainment in a space that’s typically used to drift off to sleep at night—this is inventive.
What can aspiring marketers learn?
It wouldn’t be a big stretch to suppose that all the major television networks are dropping money into big data in an attempt to make seriously intelligent business decisions in the way Netflix has done. If so, CBS’s inventive approach to merge politics with late-night entertainment makes a lot of sense. A maturing millennial audience with an annual buying power of around $200 billion will soon be settling down and starting families, which means they'll (potentially) have more free time on their hands in the time frame that most late night TV airs. (Though the when doesn’t necessarily influence whether or not they watch a show.) Bringing on a politically curious Colbert could be CBS’s attempt to capture budding millennial parents before they even have a chance to ask, “What should we watch tonight?”
Marketers are often caught in similar decision-making spots, except we have two additional temptations. We can be novel or inventive—but all too often content marketing succumbs to the unfortunate gimmick or the shameful copy-your-competitor approach. Why? There are many reasons: perhaps we think SEO will make up for the copy cat; perhaps we think our clients won't care as long as search results and sales are high. To enter into a truly competitive space, novelty and invention should be our only options on the table. And perhaps the best place to turn for inspiration is late night television.