Ed Driscoll has contrasted the pick with the Letterman and Leno succession battle. But the real lesson of that battle is that while Leno won on performance, beating Letterman in the ratings, Letterman won on image, retiring as an honored figure, despite his abusive behavior, while Leno was booed out the door.
Leno is no conservative, but he left with the baffled bewilderment familiar to many on the right of being the better man who is despised for his success, while his rival who failed miserably as a boss, a human being and a comedian, is leaving with a media ticker tape parade.
The issue wasn’t The Late Shift or Conan’s nervous breakdown; it was cultural. Leno appealed to a more middle class audience, while Letterman, like Conan, was the darling of a trendy wealthy liberal crowd.
NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield picked Leno over Letterman after asking the guys he played basketball with which of the men they wanted to watch. It was a practical move that wouldn’t be repeated today.
Nobody would ask the basketball guys if they would rather watch Colbert or someone funny, because they don’t matter.
And that’s why Colbert was picked.
The number of people who watch a TV show stopped mattering years ago. If it did, Murder She Wrote, a show that had an older audience and high ratings, wouldn’t have been canceled. Instead there’s talk of rebooting it with younger multicultural leads in a different setting.
Network television doesn’t just fail to count older viewers; it tries to drive them away. A show with an older viewership is dead air. Advertisers have been pushed by ad agencies into an obsession with associating their product with a youthful brand.
The demo rating, 18-49, is the only rating that matters. Viewers younger than that can still pay off. Just ask the CW. Older viewers however are unwanted.
A network television show would much rather have 5 million viewers in the demo than 15 million older viewers. A cable show would rather have 1 million viewers in the demo than 10 million viewers outside the demo.
Colbert and Stewart have the top late night talk shows in the demo. That means 1 million ‘young’ viewers. That’s barely what Letterman was pulling in on a top network.
Networks, which already have high median ages, are doing everything possible to bring them down. CBS has a median age of 58 and is the oldest network. Colbert is supposed to lower their average.
Letterman’s show had a median age of 56. Colbert’s show has a median age of 39. That a 49-year-old comedian with an audience whose median age is 39 is considered a draw for younger audiences reveals just how thoroughly younger viewers are abandoning television.
But it’s only part of the story.
Emphasizing the demo took apart television’s family hour and turned prime time programming dark and adult to cater to younger viewers. The values of Middle America vanished from prime time and were replaced with an emphasis on liberal values and shock culture.
The demo however wasn’t good enough. Leno still beat Letterman in the demo. But the demo is just one piece of the puzzle. Younger viewers weren’t good enough. They had to be trendy and wealthy too.
The new “ideal” viewer combined youth with disposable income. These viewers were supposedly trendsetters. Television was remade on the Friends model full of cheerful consumption shows that showed young, wealthy and white urbanites socializing in an urban setting.
And there’s no real doubt that the Friends cast, unlike the basketball players, would have picked Letterman over Leno. Or that they would pick Colbert today.
The ideal television viewer is now in his twenties or thirties, lives in a city, has plenty of disposable income and is highly active on social media so that his or her brand choices influence their peers. He bought a new smartphone in the last 12 months and the next gaming console, he goes to bars and night clubs, spends $400 on video games and $300 on music. He is more likely to do these things than to become a parent, invest in stocks or buy a home.
It goes without saying that he is also an enthusiastic supporter of gay marriage, gun control and Obama. And that he hates anyone who isn’t.
CBS does not want Middle America to watch. Chasing away older and conservative viewers by picking Colbert is not a bug, it’s a feature. CBS would like Colbert to ‘upscale’ its brand by turning its dying late night show into a low rated program watched by wealthy liberal urbanites whom advertisers will pay much more, per person, to reach.
Television networks aren’t being foolish by driving away older viewers. They’re working closely with ad agencies that want the same thing.
CBS’s Hawaii Five-O may be highly rated, but it skews to older audiences, which is why it costs $58,000 to advertise on it, while Grimm, which has a smaller audience, charged $82,000. Both shows are about even in the demo, but Grimm’s viewers are valued more. Blue Bloods may have fantastic ratings, but its audience is old, so it’s also down at the $58,000 level.
Unlike Mad Men, real ad agencies aren’t bastions of corporate patriarchy; they’re places where humanities majors get to advance a radical narrative. Advertising has been radical for some time now under the influence of creatives who always insist on pushing the limits. The creatives in ad agencies allied with television programmers, tugged clients at staid corporate firms into doing it their way.
And now advertising, for even mainstream brands, has become much edgier.
The Olympics multicultural Coca Cola ad and the gay rights cereal ads have courted controversy as an advertising strategy. That used to be something that marginal dot com brands did by firing a gerbil out of a cannon during the Super Bowl.
Now deliberately setting out to offend mainstream audiences is something that established brands do in a desperate race to show how youthful, how postmodern and how liberal they are.
Like CBS, they are increasing their brand value by demonstrating their contempt for Middle America.
If you can convince Coca Cola and Kraft to reject Middle America, CBS is an easy sell. The left has won by convincing the biggest companies in the country to build their brand by dumping American values.
Forget Kansas and Iowa; it’s San Francisco and Manhattan that matter.
It’s a terrible strategy for companies like Coca Cola and Kraft, but like Wal-Mart with its embrace of environmentalism and organic food, corporate leadership has trended to the left. And you can see why.
When looking back at the Letterman and Leno matchup. Leno won on performance, but Letterman ended up with the better brand. And corporations put the brand first. They assume that more sales will follow from having a hip brand, than a good product.
The marketplace has been artificially shifted to value some viewers over others. The ideal viewer has become a Frankenstein’s monster of youth, wealth, social media activity and geography put together so that liberal audiences matter and other audiences don’t.
Companies are no longer being polite about it. Coca Cola, Kraft and CBS are actively courting liberal audiences by mocking and rejecting Middle America.
Stephen Colbert, a man whose sole talent is raising one eyebrow while saying nasty things about conservatives, is the perfect face for the new programming of corporate contempt for America.