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Television John Doyle: Colbert’s mission is to rescue late-night TV from inanity

It is perfect timing. It could not be any better.

Not only is Stephen Colbert killing it every time he promotes the debut of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (Tuesday, CBS, Global, 11:35 p.m.) with videos, tweets and hey-you assertions, he's getting help. Jeb Bush, who will be on tonight's first show, managed to turn his appearance into a news story by raffling tickets for the show to donors to his political campaign. A risible act, but one that managed to get Colbert in the news for days when the host countered with his own raffle plan. Even Bill O'Reilly on Fox News inadvertently gave Colbert a ton of press when he warned Colbert about "alienating traditional Americans."

And then there's the obvious, in terms of timing – the crazy hurly-burly of the U.S. presidential election is something Colbert is uniquely skilled in satirizing after years of satiric tomfoolery on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

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But then there's the bigger picture. That's the late-night arena. Colbert's real mission is to rescue late-night network TV from itself. From the inanity of Jimmy Fallon. From the sometimes keen but mostly vacuous, showbiz-centric humour of Jimmy Kimmel.

We don't know Colbert, really. We know the character he played. The egomaniac cable-news ranter. As he once explained about The Colbert Report: "I'm in character. And basically, I'm an idiot."

But Colbert, out of character and unleashed as himself, is no idiot. As Bill Carter, author of two bestselling books about the late-night wars, wrote last week in The Hollywood Reporter, Colbert "may qualify as the most thoughtful and intellectual figure ever to sit behind a late-night desk."

That's the important thing. Given some leeway by CBS, he can make Letterman's old slot a venue for smart but enlightened, progressive humour. Not everyone will buy into it, and ratings matter, but the measurement of TV viewership has become much more sophisticated and, if Colbert is getting the desirable audience without winning a ratings war, he's safe.

What Fallon and Kimmel do in response to Colbert's arrival is key in the early going. Recently, Rolling Stone reported that, to counter Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon would have Justin Bieber for a week-long residency. The report turned out to be false. But the interesting thing is that it was plausible and everyone accepted it as a reasonable tactic. Yes, Fallon's show is that juvenile. The one distinct move Fallon is actually making this week is having Donald Trump on Friday's Tonight Show. Colbert has George Clooney and Jeb Bush tonight and Vice-President Joe Biden on Thursday. Next week, he has Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Senator Bernie Sanders, sprinkled among a bevy of showbiz celebs.

Jimmy Kimmel Live! is in repeats this week, a strategic move. However, in an indication of the late-night manoeuvres to come, in October, Kimmel is taking his show from L.A. to Brooklyn, during the first week that Colbert will be in repeats. And for Colbert's show, he's got until Sept. 28 before a relaunched The Daily Show with Trevor Noah starts up. Everything is timing.

Don't expect anything radical from Stephen Colbert Tuesday. The late-night network talk-show format in U.S. TV is firmly locked-in. There's the host, the desk, the band, the guests. A few skits done outside the studio. It works and viewers expect the format. Any deviation would be seismic and it's not occurring Tuesday. In terms of business and pure profit, CBS wants the same-old. And, by the way, while David Letterman owned his show, CBS owns Colbert's show.

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Thing is, people expect to go to bed with a chuckle, having encountered a familiar host using a familiar blueprint. Few things in the entertainment world are more difficult to change than a U.S. network-TV format. Colbert's mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to offer smarts and sophistication. If he achieves that, he's won the late-night wars already.

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