June 25, 2019

What Air Talent Can Learn From Stephen Colbert

Tuesdays With Coleman

Stephen Colbert had a pretty good gig. From 1997 to 2005, he was a correspondent for The Daily Show, where he broke ground on hilarious, sarcastic and often outrageous news reporting. In 2005, he was handed the keys to his own show, The Colbert Report, which followed The Daily Show on Comedy Central for the following nine years. Colbert’s work on this show is even more remarkable when reviewed with the passage of time. If you think hosting your own show as yourself is challenging, try hosting a topical, relevant news show every night in character. Not to mention the fact that the political views Colbert’s character espoused each night were generally the opposite of his own personal outlook. The Colbert Report was a resounding success for the network.

Stephen Colbert The Colbert Report

In 2015 David Letterman retired, and Colbert became the new host of The Late Show on CBS.

Then the wheels fell off.

It wasn’t just that The Late Show got hit hard in the ratings—The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon consistently beat Colbert overall and with desirable demographics in 2015 and 2016— it was that Colbert abandoned his brand. When preparing for the show’s launch in September 2015, he was faced with the unenviable challenge of moving from hosting as a character to hosting as himself.

It was awkward. Worse, it was vanilla.

When Colbert brought his Daily Show BFF Jon Stewart on the show last year and cleverly let Stewart ask him the questions, Stewart asked Colbert about this transition period.

Colbert mentions the difficulty in even talking about his own wife on the show, since he’d spent the past nine years in a character with a fake wife. He says he believes there wasn’t even a good monologue for the first six months. By 2017, Colbert turned the tide in the ratings. So what changed?

Colbert references his interview with Joe Biden, during which the two shared a common life experience of loss and showed vulnerability.

He mentions how he embraced the art form of the monologue and made it his own through authenticity and putting his own spin on it. Being unafraid to go political following Trump’s election didn’t hurt.

Finally, he talks about how a series of live shows gave the episodes immediacy and urgency, and how he learned to trust those around him.

While only research could effectively answer this question, let’s hypothetically play out getting a read on Colbert’s brand during the transition. Had we applied it to our Brand-Content MatrixSM, we may have seen significant brand strength, with viewers familiar with who he is, what he represents, and a clear understanding of why they watch.

Brand Content Matrix

The content on The Colbert Report was undoubtedly great. Note the content on that show was always true to the brand—if Colbert’s brand was snarky and sarcastic, the content was snarky and sarcastic.

We would have measured perceptions of Colbert as a personality and his show’s images and features.

Strong brand and great content would have placed him in the upper right quadrant of the Brand-Content Matrix, which is where you want to be.

The first year of The Late Show provides a lesson on what could have happened had Colbert not recognized the need to adjust.

First, because Colbert was trying to deliver a more mainstream, centrist show, the check mark on the “Content” line may have slowly moved to the left.

While his brand may have remained strong for some time, the disconnect between the  brand and content would have ultimately pulled the check mark down the “Brand” line.

When you’re preparing your show each day, never forget that your brand and your content are intrinsically connected.

Colbert restored his Brand-Content Matrix by recognizing his content deviation. Do you think he aligned the new show to his brand or modified his brand to align with the content?

The lessons he learned are evergreen for all shows:

Be memorable.

Be vulnerable.

Be authentic.

Trust those around you.

Build a strong brand, and develop great content.

2 thoughts on “What Air Talent Can Learn From Stephen Colbert”

  1. Joel Raab

    While all of this is true and well stated, much of Colbert’s rise had to do with taking the anti-Trump position following the 2016 election . To your point, it made him more authentic.

    1. Jay Nachlis Post Author

      Absolutely, Joel. It’s interesting to me how all three network talk shows (Colbert, Kimmel and even Fallon) are no longer afraid to take stands politically when the late-night network shows historically stayed away.

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