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Stephen Colbert's CBS show could be completely unlike any late-night show out there

Stephen Colbert (seated) appears on The Late Show with David Letterman shortly after being named Letterman's successor.
Stephen Colbert (seated) appears on The Late Show with David Letterman shortly after being named Letterman's successor.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

CBS appeared yesterday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, and the normally staid network, which has seen a bit of a rebound in its ratings this fall, was subject to a whole bunch of questions about the big, unknowable vacuum in its lineup: late night.

Craig Ferguson left The Late, Late Show in December, and David Letterman will leave The Late Show in May. But their absence leaves a huge opportunity for CBS to try something new.

British comedian and actor James Corden and Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert will replace both men, respectively. Corden will launch in March, so CBS president Nina Tassler, who spoke at a press conference, knows slightly more about what it will look like than Colbert's show (launching in September), but only slightly.

What we know about Stephen Colbert's new show

In particular, Tassler suggested that Colbert and his team — which includes many who worked with him on The Colbert Report — are looking at the underpinnings of the late-night talk show to see if any of it needs reconsideration or even reinvention. One of the host's concerns, she said, was that he knew he would be ditching the character he used to host The Colbert Report and hosting as the "real" Stephen Colbert. But she also felt he would have good instincts about how to handle that transition.

"He's a real student of the media. He knows the format better than anybody," she said of Colbert's knowledge of talk shows. "There will be parts that will be traditional, in some context, and then there will be things he's going to try to do differently."

It should be said that promises to break open the late-night talk show format seem to pop up every time someone takes over one of the late-night institutions, yet any changes made to the format tend to be mostly incremental. However, Colbert and his team are incredibly clever and smart about how TV works. It makes more sense to hope they might pull it off than most other hosts who land late-night shows.

Why CBS went with James Corden

Corden has actually been working on his show for six days so far, he said in his own press conference, and he and his team (some of whom have come with him from the United Kingdom) are still figuring out what their staff will look like, including interviewing members of Craig Ferguson's old team. He's been watching other American talk shows, too, to figure out how the format works and how it can be shifted.

But the appeal for Tassler and CBS at taking a chance on Corden came from watching the hosting he's done in the UK, particularly on a game show called A League of Their Own, where his discussions with guests gave CBS the sense that he could be a great interviewer. "Any of the people he was interviewing, they just adored him," Tassler said. "It doesn't matter who he talks to. They just fall under his spell."

Both comedians have time to figure out what their shows will look like, and NBC's dominance of late night, thanks to Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, is such that CBS will almost certainly give Colbert and Corden plenty of room to experiment and grow.

But that experimentation is serving CBS well all over its schedule, at least if the last few months are any indication.

CBS on the rebound

Last summer, I wrote that CBS, America's most dominant network for most of the existence of television, was in danger of becoming the Los Angeles Lakers of TV — filled with expensive, aging star performers it couldn't afford to cut for fear of what might happen. The network, coming off a terrible 2013-14 TV season, seemed to be entering a phase where it would have to spend a year or two rebuilding.

But as anyone who's spent any time watching CBS over the years knows, it has a tendency to bounce right back from even the worst seasons. And that's exactly what it's done this fall, with three of its new shows (Scorpion, NCIS: New Orleans, and Madam Secretary) proving solid enough to garner early renewals. None of these shows is a huge, breakout hit, but they've all turned into exactly the kind of young performers that will give CBS some breathing room as its older shows approach their end dates. And as a bonus, sophomore sitcom Mom has caught some ratings momentum, thanks to being scheduled after The Big Bang Theory.

It's all contributed to a season where CBS is up in viewership and boasts seven of the top 10 and 12 of the top 20 shows on TV. The network isn't anywhere near out of the woods yet, especially when its 10 pm dramas continue to struggle mightily, but it's in much better shape than it was even a few months ago.

And the network is also pushing into new areas. Its CBS All Access app, which allows for streaming of its programs, is the sort of thing one would never expect from typically staid CBS, while the network has also taken a cue from its corporate younger sibling, The CW, and cued up a superhero show.

It's quite likely to air a new TV series based on the character of Supergirl, whom CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said was in line with the network's other heroines. And while Tassler may be overstating CBS's dedication to feminist icons, since it does, after all, air hour after hour of crime programs where women are primarily victims, you can sort of see what she's getting at if you squint. Is the continuum from The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick to Supergirl particularly straightforward? Not really. But it's also not as crazy as it might seem to be.

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