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Stephen Colbert Wins Season Ratings Battle, Thanks

Several things have been credited with driving Stephen Colbert’s recent ratings surge: liberals craving a safe space, a backlash to his rival Jimmy Fallon’s hair tousle of Donald J. Trump, and Mr. Colbert simply being more comfortable as the host of his late-night show on CBS.
But when the September-to-May TV season ends on Wednesday night, Mr. Colbert will be the victor in total viewers over Mr. Fallon because of an unlikely reason: the DVR.
Mr. Colbert’s remarkable comeback is one of the biggest stories in TV, and it is the first time in 22 years that CBS will best NBC in the time slot other than 2010, when Conan O’Brien was removed from “The Tonight Show” in favor of a return to Jay Leno.
And though Mr. Colbert has been winning in total viewers on an almost nightly basis for some time — he’s had more total viewers than Mr. Fallon for 16 consecutive weeks — those victories alone would not have been enough to narrow the enormous deficit he faced over all just a few months ago.
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Nielsen’s season-to-date data includes seven days of delayed viewing, and it is there where Mr. Colbert has made up tremendous ground on Mr. Fallon, racking up big numbers in an area where nightly network talk shows are usually not a factor. Viewers are fine with catching up on a scripted comedy or drama a week after it originally aired, but who wants to watch Monday night’s talk show on a Friday when most of the jokes will have gone stale?
Primetime shows often depend on significant DVR and on-demand views to goose their numbers. The top-rated show in broadcast, “The Big Bang Theory,” sees its ratings jump 35 percent when seven days of delayed viewing is factored in. Advertisers examine three-day and seven-day delayed data when considering how much to pay for commercial time on a show.
But nightly talk shows are different.
In the 2012-13 season, for instance, David Letterman’s “The Late Show” only saw a 2 percent gain and Jay Leno got a 3 percent bump from seven days of delayed data, according to Nielsen.
By time Mr. Fallon took over “The Tonight Show” in 2014 those numbers rose: Mr. Fallon saw his delayed viewers rise by 11 percent.

Watching After the Fact

How much delayed viewership surpassed real-time viewing of late-night shows this season. (In thousands.)
“The Late Show”
“The Tonight Show”
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Mr. Colbert has taken it to a new level. This season, Mr. Colbert has seen his numbers jump 18 percent thanks to delayed viewing. (Though gains this size are rare among broadcast networks, they are less so among cable late-night shows. Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show,” for example, shows considerable gains through playback though his overall audience is much smaller.)
Since January, when Mr. Colbert started his weekly winning streak, his audience has jumped an average of 20 percent when seven days of delayed viewing numbers are factored in, according to Nielsen, a net of an additional 551,000 viewers. Mr. Fallon’s show added 212,000 viewers, a rise of 8 percent, and Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC show netted just an extra 81,000 viewers for 4 percent growth.
Mr. Colbert still trails Mr. Fallon in a significant statistic — the important 18-to-49-year-old demographic. Mr. Fallon has a rating point of 0.81 for the season compared to Mr. Colbert’s 0.58 and Mr. Kimmel’s 0.48.

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