Craig Ferguson, who will leave CBS at the end of the year after a decade, was arguably the only person actually doing a “talk show” in late night: that is, a show in which the distinguishing attraction was not viral videos or comedy bits or the standup routine but the talk. Ferguson, a funny comedian in his own right, stood out for his words–his wide-ranging, essayistic monologues, his idiosyncratic choices of guests whom he engaged with sincere curiosity and interest. It never earned him a big profile, it was fortunate he lasted as long as he did, and he will be missed.
That said, I’d be a phony to act too outraged over his departure or worked up over who will replace him. Because truth be told, I admired Ferguson a lot and watched him very little. It was nothing personal; I also watch relatively little of Conan and Dave and Arsenio and the Jimmys and all the very talented guys (because they are guys) hosting late-night talk shows. If I didn’t write about TV, I’d probably watch even less; I have kids, I wake up early, there’s a lot of TV crowding my Tivo, and there are too many other alternatives I’d choose first.
And I’m not alone. The audiences for the big 11:35 p.m. shows have been declining over the years, and by 12:35 the numbers are infinitesimal. If we’re going strictly by ratings, we should be at least as concerned about what new shows Adult Swim is programming as who takes over another talk show.
Ferguson’s audience was small but intense, but for many others, late-night only exists as a kind of cultural proxy. There should maybe be a punch-card system, in which you need to show proof of having actually watched 20 full talk-show episodes in a year before venturing a heated opinion as to who hosts one. As a colleague once told me back during the Jay/Conan disaster, “I don’t really watch Conan, but I like to know that he’s there.”
So people will debate, again, who should host CBS’s late-late show, but there’s a good argument that we don’t need the show at all–not, anyway, a show with a monologue, a house band, two interviews and a musical guest. CBS might do much better creating a program to reach some part of the vast, vast audience that does not watch talk shows, period. For instance (and I’m not the first to throw these ideas out):
* a sports roundup/roundtable, taking advantage of CBS Sports’ resources
* a panel-discussion show, harking back to the days of Politically Incorrect on ABC
* a talk-parody show, like the brilliant, short-lived syndicated Fernwood 2-Night and America 2-Night that starred Martin Mull and Fred Willard in the ’70s
* virtually any kind of targeted-interest show–music, politics, what have you–to distinguish CBS’s late night from the raft of general-interest talk shows already out there
CBS will probably do none of these things, of course; well before Ferguson left, its leadership was talking about looking for another host to do another talk show. But if it does, it probably won’t be because there’s that much viewership to be found or money to be made but because, well, NBC has a 12:35 show, CBS had one, and it would seem to diminish Stephen Colbert not to be followed by a full-fledged talk show as David Letterman was and Jimmy Fallon is.
There will be a late late show on CBS, in other words, because that’s what you do. You most likely will not watch it. But at least you’ll know it’s there.