Bill Carter: How Jimmy Fallon Crushed Stephen Colbert (& Everyone Else in Late Night)


by Bill Carter for The Hollywood Reporter 12/16/2015 7:25am PST

(Carter established his street cred in Late Night as the TV reporter for the New York Times, and by writing several books on the subject)

The inspired silliness of NBC’s reigning champ became everything in a genre where YouTube hits (Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Timberlake battling in a lip-sync contest and Adele singing “Hello” accompanied by classroom instruments are among them) are as relevant as ratings.

In a year of unprecedented change in late-night television, one date stands out as the defining moment. No, not Sept. 8, the night circled on most calendars — the premiere of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on CBS. Colbert, a Comedy Central alum flush with a second Emmy for outstanding variety series, did arrive with plenty of fanfare.

But none of that mattered — for long. D-day for late-night TV was Sept. 9, when Colbert’s splashy, classy introduction to the Ed Sullivan Theater was upstaged abruptly by a commotion a few blocks south at 30 Rock. NBC’s Jimmy Fallon came crashing through TV screens with the most boisterous blockbuster hour of entertainment he could fashion. Opening with a blast of dance and song — “History of Rap 6,” accompanied by his signature guest, Justin Timberlake — and backing it with Ellen DeGeneres in another regular Fallon bit, a lip sync contest, the Tonight Show host made a statement: Welcome to late night, Stephen.

One prominent late-night player told me facing that show that night was like “going up against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Fallon clearly had no interest in sitting back to allow the swirl surrounding Colbert’s arrival to run its course. Those killer second-night bookings were long in the planning and very much the host’s idea, says a Fallon staffer. Colbert’s ratings preeminence lasted 24 hours: Fallon beat him the second night — and 55 of the next 58 nights. During recent weeks, the gap has grown in the 18-to-49 demographic coveted by late-night advertisers.



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