Stephen Colbert has already helped CBS set a new record for online video viewers

Drastic times call for “drastic” measures.
Drastic times call for “drastic” measures.
Image: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
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CBS television ratings are up since Stephen Colbert took over in September as the host of the network’s ”Late Show,” replacing David Letterman. (Though NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon continues to lead the time slot.)

Colbert’s arrival has also led to growth in another important metric for CBS: the number of people watching its videos online. In September, CBS Interactive drew 34.6 million US desktop unique video viewers, according to comScore. That represented more than 40% year-over-year growth, and the network’s highest video audience in comScore’s records, which start in 2012.

This propelled CBS Interactive to become the eighth-largest US desktop video content property in September, according to comScore, up from no. 15 in August. Colbert had 4.6 million desktop viewers in September, significantly higher than Letterman’s old numbers, according to comScore. (To be sure, this isn’t a perfect or complete measurement, as it only reflects desktop viewing. Social-led video viewing is now largely conducted on mobile, which is harder to track.)

Letterman, a true master of television, never took to the social web, so Colbert—who has 9.3 million Twitter followers and has tweeted almost 4,000 times—was almost guaranteed to drive some digital growth for CBS.

Letterman admitted as much in an interview with the New York Times this past April:

Q: It seems like there’s an increasing emphasis, at least with your network competitors, to create comedy bits that will go viral on the Internet. Did you make a conscious choice to stay out of that arms race?

A: No, it just came and went without me. It sneaked up on me and went right by. People on the staff said, “You know what would be great is if you would join Twitter.” And I recognized the value of it. It’s just, I didn’t know what to say. You go back to your parents’ house, and they still have the rotary phone. It’s a little like that.

That said, Colbert’s success doesn’t appear to be as driven by short, web-friendly clips—unlike, say, Jimmy Kimmel, or John Oliver’s ready-to-embed rants. It may not be that Colbert is producing a drastically more viral show than Letterman; simply that Colbert’s audience was already used to watching him online.

The next step for Colbert and CBS will be sustaining that momentum. There’s no telling how much the numbers have been driven by a curiosity factor around Colbert’s transformation from his Comedy Central persona. Additionally, the show has kicked off with some incredible guests, including a particularly memorable—and emotional—interview with US vice president Joe Biden.