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.
With the announcement, his fans likely feel a clash of emotions:
Happiness that their hero has landed a sweet promotion.
Regret that he's leaving his Comedy Central post.
Uncertainty over who the Stephen Colbert hosting "Late Show" will be.
Colbert has signed on for a five-year term as the new host.
He will leave "Stephen Colbert" behind when he heads to CBS sometime in 2015, taking over for the retiring David Letterman (who has not yet specified an exit date).
But in lieu of "Stephen Colbert," who will Colbert offer up to his audience instead? Who is behind the "Stephen Colbert" mask?
Even Colbert isn't sure - or, if he is, he declines to say.
"I won't be doing the new show in character," explained Colbert in a statement Thursday. "So we'll all get to find out how much of him was me."
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 vs. now
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.
Apart from those arch-rivals, 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. And none of the hosts was named Jimmy.
NOW: There are at least 11 such shows on broadcast or cable, with roughly 18 percent of them hosted by a Jimmy.
THEN: Although three-fourths of TV homes had VCRs (enabling a "late night" show to be time-shifted to any hour, day or night), almost no one knew how to program them, or had even gotten around to setting the clock. And no one owned a digital video recorder because it 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. With TV, "late night" is more a state of mind than a time of day.
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? Google search? 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: 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, "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 Jimmy Kimmel have each averaged about 2.7 million.
Many changes, indeed. But even in a changing world, some things never change.
THEN: Among the handful of hosts, only one was black.
NOW: Among today's crush of hosts, only one - that same guy, Arsenio Hall - is black.
THEN: No women were hosting.
NOW: One woman is a host, Chelsea Handler, though she has said she is ready to exit her E! program.
THEN: For months, media reporters just couldn't stop churning out coverage of the Late Night War.
NOW: With Dave's news of his retirement plans, we're just getting started on another siege of stories.
Some will carp that Colbert is yet another white male with a hosting job.
And what about his age? Depending on when he signs on, he will be 50 or 51 (in other words, outside the "demo"). Meanwhile, his main rivals will still be in the bloom of youth: NBC's "Tonight Show" host, Jimmy Fallon, will be 40 or 41; the host of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" will be 47 or 48.
Besides, what political baggage will Colbert bring to CBS, even as he ditches his "Stephen Colbert" role?
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly (more than anyone the inspiration for "Stephen Colbert") tore into Colbert, branding him "one of the biggest mouthpieces for the progressive movement, ... playing exclusively to other believers."
And, just hours after Colbert was named the new "Late Show" host, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was growling that "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America. No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values (and) conservatives. Now it's just wide out in the open."
That may be a premature assessment. O'Reilly may place Colbert in the ranks of "ideological fanatics."
But ideology has never been at home on major late-night talk shows, which traditionally shoot for reassurance and diversion.
What do such constraints mean for Colbert, and for viewers who dote on what he does as "Stephen Colbert"?
Uncertainties abound concerning Colbert's new assignment. Unknowns include creative elements of his new show, and even where it will be based. CBS said such details would be shared later on.
But while his fans wait, they know enough to take solace in one overriding fact: They should never underestimate him.
So RIP, "Stephen Colbert," if that's how it's got to be. The Stephen Colbert viewers meet on "Late Show" next year could well be someone they like just as much. Or even more.
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