Colbert is taking a big risk

Story highlights

  • David Bianculli: Colbert slated to replace Letterman; great for CBS, risky for Colbert
  • He says Colbert brings new late-night essentials: social media savvy, buzz
  • But Colbert could lose edge when he drops persona; will fans follow him, he asks?
  • Bianculli's bet is that Colbert, a smart interviewer, will likely do well as himself

Only a week after David Letterman surprised viewers with his on-air vow to step down from late-night TV in 2015, CBS moved with stunning speed to anoint and announce his replacement: Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

Colbert, who has hosted "The Colbert Report" since 2005 in the tongue-in-cheek character of a pompous political conservative, was quoted by Bill Carter of The New York Times as saying he would be appearing on CBS as himself, not his comic alter ego. Signing the quotable and often controversial Colbert, with his legion of "Colbert Nation" social media fans, clearly is a gain for CBS. But for fans of Colbert, and for Colbert himself, it's much more of a risk.

The CBS thought process is easy to deconstruct.

David Bianculli

Either the network was going to give the "Late Show" slot, when it opened, to Craig Ferguson, who has toiled loyally in the time slot following it for as long as "The Colbert Report" has been on cable, or to someone else. Ferguson will be 52 next month -- but Colbert, also next month, will turn 50, compared with ABC's Jimmy Kimmel and NBC's Jimmy Fallon, who later this year will turn 46 and 40, respectively. So the issue isn't so much age as, perhaps, buzz, with Colbert's social media savvy giving him the edge.

The question now becomes, though, how much edge can Colbert bring to CBS, especially without the once-removed antagonistic persona of his Comedy Central blowhard?

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Bill Maher offended too many people when he was on a late-night broadcast show, "Politically Incorrect," but the same act has thrived, and taken root, on cable's HBO. Going in the opposite direction, how many edges must Colbert sand off to maintain or increase a loyal audience on CBS?

In character on "The Colbert Report," Colbert is such a smart and funny interviewer that, even out of character, he should prove much better in that department than either of the late-night Jimmys. But unless he generates the same sort of viral videos, most of them musical, that Kimmel and Fallon have presented so successfully, Colbert may struggle to compete.

Colbert is a very strong singer -- even Stephen Sondheim thinks so, and cast him in a concert version of "Company" -- so he could do that sort of thing. But does he even want to?

And will his Comedy Central audience even follow him to CBS? Success in one arena doesn't necessarily translate after a move to another venue. Just ask Oprah.

Personally, I like what CBS is gaining here. The potential for Colbert, who's such a phenomenal workhorse on his current show, to craft a new show for CBS is enticing, and the unknown factor of what he will bring to the program as himself should generate plenty of publicity. For CBS, the move makes sense.

But for Colbert, the transplant could be tricky.

Young viewers -- and he certainly has them -- are fickle, and those who watch him on the more subversive Comedy Central may not be inclined to switch to the less cool CBS just to follow him. And many, like myself, will miss "The Colbert Report" greatly. There's no show on TV quite like it.

(The logical replacement for Colbert, thinking one more step ahead, would be former "Daily Show" correspondent John Oliver, but his new current events comedy show begins later this month on HBO -- so he may or may not be available when the slot opens next year.)

And in addition to losing "The Colbert Report," viewers also are all but certain to lose "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" when his current contract expires -- so that's two entertaining late-night programs that we're losing, just to get a replacement for Letterman. Whether it all ends up being a good exchange for viewers depends on those other replacements, and how good Colbert ends up being at playing a formerly unseen and untested role: himself.

My guess is that, as himself, Stephen Colbert will produce and star in a very good show indeed. But with the show being on CBS in the multimedia climate of 2015, my worry is whether that will prove to be enough.

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