CBS made official this morning what so many people had been speculating since David Letterman announced his retirement last Thursday, Stephen Colbert will take over the Late Show reigns next year. It is the logical choice, Colbert is part of the CBS/Viacom family and has been wildly successful with his arch-conservative parody Colbert Report. He brings the kind of social media cache that the networks have become all about with the Jimmys, Fallon and Kimmel. Colbert is a brilliant guy and he will definitely deliver a consistently funny product, but will anyone care?
Blue Ocean Strategy by W Chan Kim and and Renee Mauborgne is a book that conceptualizes a strategy to make competition irrelevant. The cornerstone of the strategy is to value innovation. By seeking a new, original product a company can make its competition irrelevant. It requires looking beyond demand and giving people something they didn’t know they wanted. By hiring another funny, intelligent middle-aged white guy CBS put itself in the same ocean as every other late night network, broadcast and cable. This makes the market highly competitive and Colbert is going to need to be that much better in order to succeed.
It does not come as much of a shock considering that CBS isn’t exactly known for its innovation, but in a twisted way much of their success has come from accidentally imploring a Blue Ocean Strategy. Over the past decade the other three broadcast networks, Fox, ABC, and NBC, have tried to get out in front of the the digital revolution and create programming designed for the millennial audience. The problem is that they greatly overestimated our generation’s interest in watching live television and chose innovative style over substance. CBS, on the other hand, went the opposite direction going with nostalgic throwbacks, multi-cam traditional sitcoms and police/investigative procedurals. And it has worked like gangbusters for the most watched network since the turn of the Millenium. Now the other networks are trying to follow suit and have more CBS style programming in its schedule.
Unfortunately CBS is either unaware of its strategy or unwilling to apply it to its Late Night programming. Well, actually, still not entirely true. It does produce the most innovative of all late night programming in The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Improvised monologues over pithy jokes about today’s hot topics. A gay, robot skeleton sidekick named Geoff Peterson as its Ed McMahon. Absolutely no prepared interviews with its guests. Ferguson has applied the blue ocean strategy to turn the late night genre on its head and it is the only one that I can actually sit through an entire episode of week to week. Sure the other shows have more viral videos that are funny the next day, but as a whole the shows are difficult to watch and 75% of the interviews are brutal to watch in its glaringly rehearsed structure.
The success and creativity of Ferguson’s show makes it even more frustrating that CBS chose to simply follow the same formula with Colbert. It could’ve been an opportunity bring a woman back to late night. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were both pipe dreams considering both are producing multiple shows this upcoming season and the latter still has a final season of Parks and Rec to get through. Chelsea Handler’s style is a bit aggressive and I’m not sure if she is likeable enough to host on her own. Ellen Degenres, coming off a successful Academy Award hosting gig, could’ve been an excellent out of the box choice. A lesbian hosting the Late Show almost 20 years after her coming out announcement helped drive her sitcom off the air would make for a great story. It would’ve been easy for her to stand out among her peers and bring in a new audience.
But simply choosing a host that stands out was not the only way CBS could’ve spiced things up. A change in format would make for a breath of fresh air. Perhaps something simple to start out like moving to a co-host format. A funny pair that can work off one another, say Key and Peele for example. Imagine them moving their sketch format to the big time on CBS and adding interview segments, and musical and comedic acts to it. Now that would create a buzz and become must watch TV. Perhaps they could’ve Godfathered Jon Stewart to do the Daily Show on CBS every night. It could remain exactly the same just add an extra guest and a musical act. Next to Ferguson and the Colbert character, Stewart is the best interviewer, so it would not hurt to give him more time with each guest. Even better, get rid of the traditional taped in front of a studio audience format all together. Take the show on the road, film more sketches, do more walking around town and talking to real people bits that still work, just like at Billy Eichner’s Billy on the Street for evidence. If the networks are really looking for more viral videos, then this format change will allow for it.
Perhaps when Colbert’s premiere date approaches we’ll learn that he has his own ideas on how to innovate the tired old format. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised by anything he might do as host, but as of right now it seems like CBS is happy treading water in the Red Ocean rather than taking a chance and swimming for the Blue.