2017 hasn’t been a great year for America, but it’s certainly been good for late night TV.
Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, John Oliver and Seth Meyers have all gotten a boost from observing the surrealism of life in the Age of Trump, but no host has managed to spin society’s straw into ratings gold quite like Late Show host Stephen Colbert.
The CBS star manages to blend his trademark political humor with broader cultural commentary, a relaxed interview style and a healthy dose of mischief, resulting in a show that can be both weighty and light, sweet and snarky, all in the space of one episode.
“We’re not a political show, we’re a topical show, but if you do anything right now and pretend that it has nothing to do with Trump, you’re just wrong,” says The Late Show‘s executive producer Chris Licht. “So really, we’re a reflection of where society is, and if that wanes then we will adjust. We’re not on the air to be a Trump show, we’re on the air and we’re in the digital space to be entertaining and relevant and topical.”
That focus on topicality has paid off — not only has The Late Show scored a decisive victory over former ratings champ The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon in total viewers, winning the 2016-17 season, Mashable can reveal that Colbert is outpacing the competition by more than 100 million views on YouTube, when it comes to content released this year.
Data from Tubular Labs, which provides social video analytics, shows that 2017 clips from The Late Show amassed 760 million views between January 1 and July 31, while its closest competitor, The Tonight Show, racked up 651 million views year-to-date.
There’s a considerable gap between those numbers and Jimmy Kimmel Live, which earned 426 million views for its 2017 clips during the same period, followed by Colbert’s CBS companion The Late Late Show with James Corden, which scored 415 million views. NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers brought up the rear with 328 million views between January and July.
Licht notes that while Colbert’s competitors still get a boost from franchise segments or older videos — Kimmel’s top-rated YouTube clip is a Justin Bieber video from 7 years ago — The Late Show has found success this year with more timely clips.
“We have a couple of things that have been around for over a year that still get hits. A lot of our competitors still get big numbers on things that have happened a while ago, whereas you’re seeing most of — if not all of — our growth coming from new engagements, which is really encouraging,” he notes. Colbert’s interview with Anthony Scaramucci, for example, racked up more than one million views in its first 24 hours on YouTube.
Licht reiterates that timeliness is key to their success. Ideally, when the show has to take breaks — as it did for two weeks leading up to Labor Day — his team aims to provide exclusive digital content to keep fans engaged while the broadcast is off air, but this time around, Colbert and his creative team were in Los Angeles to prepare for the Primetime Emmy Awards, which Colbert is hosting for CBS on Sept. 17.
“This was a double whammy of, not only are we not on TV, we’re also not in a place where we can do a lot of stuff digitally,” Licht admits. “Whereas in the past, when the Access Hollywood bus thing happened, Stephen was able to do something from his living room that was hugely successful.”
Still Licht hopes that fans will understand that the show can’t be on 24/7, despite the demands of the news cycle. “If you look at everything that’s happened since the day we went on hiatus, it’s just mind-boggling. There are late show cycles that would’ve dealt with what happened in two weeks in two years, so at a certain point you have to say ‘we can’t’ and hope the audience understands.”
Luckily (or sadly, depending on how you look at it) the current administration is perfectly capable of creating more news, even if the show has to miss a couple days of outrage.
Through Labor Day, The Late Show was also ranked the #1 most social News & Talk late night show year-to-date across all networks, according to Nielsen SocialGuide — no small feat, considering how many late night series dominate the cultural conversation on social media.
“There’s an old saying that if you try to be viral you will not be viral, and we took that to heart,” Licht says of the show’s approach to digital promotion. “We really set out to have a strategy that was on brand with what we’re trying to do. So we wanted it to be a reflection of Stephen’s sensibility and where the show was going … I don’t think we’ve done anything to reinvent the wheel; we’re very topical; we look at it as a completely different platform than the television platform; and we’re very mindful of getting stuff up early when we can – certainly on time – and sometimes throwing out the rules.”
That means ignoring conventional wisdom that a clip needs to be no more than a couple of minutes long to be successful — many of Colbert’s most popular videos are more than 10 minutes in length, including his most-viewed segment.
“Sometimes something that we haven’t done on the show will work, sometimes it’s a cutdown of what’s on the show,” Licht says. “The digital team looks at it as a completely different way of getting content to fans, as long as it’s in the same brand of what we’re doing on television.”
The Late Show‘s digital team is comprised of six or seven people who are tasked with repackaging in-show content and also conceptualizing standalone segments, from behind-the-scenes clips to interactions with guests or Colbert himself.
It was the digital team that came up with the idea to mount a livestream of the condiment stand at the Republican National Convention, and Licht says that it was during those live shows that the producers felt like they were starting to gain traction in the digital space.
“We were doing some things that were offbeat but still on brand, and then we doubled down on some basics of really cultivating content for the different platforms, whether it be Snapchat or Facebook or YouTube,” he says.
But the cornerstone of The Late Show‘s digital strategy, Licht says, is keeping it authentic to Colbert’s sensibilities. “It’s very experiential as opposed to a real focus group sitdown strategy. The strategy is, let’s get Stephen and the show out to as many people as wanna consume it.”
Judging by The Late Show‘s ratings rise on broadcast and online — total streams of the show are up 30% year over year via the show’s official digital platforms, per CBS — that approach is working, and that’s a testament to Colbert, not the guy in the Oval Office.