In a twist that once seemed improbable, the 2-year-old “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” will end the television season as the highest-rated late-night program.
With three nights left in the standard September-to-May interval, “The Late Show” has edged out “The Tonight Show” by 22,000 viewers, according to a CBS press release. “The Late Show” is now averaging an audience of 3.195 million, whereas “The Tonight Show” has 3.173 million.
With the exception of Conan O’Brien’s brief turn at the helm, “The Tonight Show” had retained the No. 1 spot since the 1994–95 season, when Jay Leno surpassed David Letterman in the ratings. Jimmy Fallon’s takeover in 2014 proved successful, but Colbert began encroaching on Fallon’s lead at the start of 2017. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Colbert’s pointed political comedy has attracted an audience that is less compelled by Fallon’s safe, middle-of-the-road humor. Fallon is still living down last September’s infamous Trump interview in which he asked softball questions and ruffled the candidate’s hair.
Granted, the stats aren’t entirely pro-Colbert. Fallon still reigns in the 18-to-49 age demographic, which is the most coveted among advertisers. But “The Late Show,” which last year averaged fewer than 3 million viewers, was the only late-night series to grow in year-to-year ratings. As the country’s political news continues to boil, Colbert’s lead seems likely to expand.