“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” will finish the 2016-17 season as the most-watched late night talk show, the first time that’s happened in seven years.
Colbert’s CBS show breaks a string of dominance by “The Tonight Show” on NBC. With three nights left to measure in the September-to-May season, “The Late Show” has a slim lead of 22,000 viewers (3.195 million in most current averages to 3.173 million) over “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
(“The Late Show” led the overnight metered markets in households Monday and so likely will have the most viewers for the night. Barring any huge swings in viewership Tuesday and Wednesday, its lead will most likely hold.)
The last time “The Late Show” beat “The Tonight Show” was in 2009-10, when NBC cut Conan O’Brien’s tenure short and brought back Jay Leno as host midway through the season. When both shows had the same host throughout the season, “The Late Show’s” last victory over “The Tonight Show” was way back in 1994-95.
“The Tonight Show” still holds a lead among adults 18-49, averaging a 0.81 in the demographic through May 19 to “The Late Show’s” 0.58. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is in third place in both measures with a 0.48 among adults 18-49 and 2.2 million viewers.
The season-long viewer win for “The Late Show” continues a trend that began in January: “The Late Show” has gained audience this season, but not as much as “The Tonight Show” has lost. “Tonight” is down by 574,000 viewers year to year, and “The Late Show” has gained 305,000. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is down by 183,000.
All three shows have seen their 18-49 ratings slip, but again, “The Tonight Show” has suffered the biggest losses. “The Late Show” is off by about 11 percent (0.65 to 0.58) and “Kimmel” by 13 percent (0.55 to 0.48), but “Tonight” has fallen by 21 percent, going from 1.03 in 2015-16 to 0.81 this season.
Most of Colbert’s gains have come since January, when Colbert and “The Late Show” went heavy on political humor after President Trump’s inauguration. Prior to that “Tonight” had a lead of 444,000 viewers for the season.