NEW YORK — The future is Stephen Colbert.
The Comedy Central talk-show star was named Thursday to replace David Letterman when he steps down from CBS’ “Late Show” next year.
But what about the past and the present? Let’s try for a little historical perspective by comparing the late night landscape that greets Colbert’s announcement against the world in which “Late Show” was born:
Then: Dave arrived in the 11:35 p.m. slot on Aug. 30, 1993, with a startup venture for CBS going up against NBC’s venerable “Tonight Show,” where Jay Leno had already reigned for 15 months. Broadcast TV had only four other players in late night comedy-talk: Letterman’s old haunt, “Late Night,” where Conan O’Brien would soon preside, followed by “Later With Bob Costas,” plus the syndicated “Arsenio Hall Show.” Also, debuting a week later, “The Chevy Chase Show” aired for just a month on Fox.
Now: There are at least 11 such shows on broadcast or cable, with roughly 18 percent of them hosted by a man named Jimmy.
Then: Although three-fourths of TV homes had VCRs, almost no one knew how to program them, or had even gotten around to setting the clock. And digital video recorders hadn’t been invented yet.
Now: Roughly half of TV homes (whether with or without VCRs) are equipped with DVRs, which further undermines the meaning of “late night”: Most of these shows are taped around dusk, then plugged into a late night slot where they’re available for a viewer to retrieve and watch whenever the mood strikes.
Then: The term “Internet” would have registered barely a blip of recognition for most viewers, and, if by chance they had home Internet service, it only gave them crawling text through a dial-up connection. Web? Social media? YouTube? Streaming video? App? Whazzat?!
Now: Tweeting, second-screen interaction and viral video clips are necessary supplements to shore up the eroding audience a talk show can command solely on the TV platform.
Then: Speaking of which, the shiny new “Late Show” was scoring about 5.2 million viewers nightly, while “Tonight” averaged 4 million.
Now: Since Jimmy Fallon replaced Leno in February, NBC’s “Tonight” has averaged about 5.2 million viewers (a huge initial boost from Leno’s final-year average of 3.5 million), while Letterman and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel have each averaged about 2.7 million.
Then: Among that handful of hosts, only one was a black man.
Now: Only one — that same guy, Arsenio Hall — is black.
Then: No women were hosting.
Now: One woman is a host — Chelsea Handler.
Then: For months, media reporters just couldn’t stop churning out coverage of the Late Night War.
Now: With news of Stephen going in for Dave, we’re just getting started on another siege of stories.