[Media Rundown] Live at Colbert’s Late Show; Trump’s RNC; Ailes FOX ouster

Today, live and in-person for the return of “Stephen Colbert.” That, plus the Trump convention and the end of Roger Ailes at Fox News.

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The Colbert Nation

I was on vacation last week, being a tourist in New York. The last night in town, my wife and I were in the audience for the first live broadcast of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The show was live last week for the Republican National Convention, and will do the same this week for the Democrats.

We had a blast. The crowd was crazy energetic (much more than for a usual afternoon taping, says CNN’s Frank Pallotta, who went to a show later in the week). I got to geek out about watching a live broadcast of a typically taped program come together. My wife got to dance to the tunes of Jon Batiste and Stay Human (and got to be on-stage as part of the audience warmups!)

On the night we got to see the return of Colbert the character, we also got to know Colbert the man, who seems as affable as every profile would lead you to believe. During taped segments, he would give the audience cues, rather than the stage manager. “I’m going to watch this with you,” he’d say before sitting on top of his desk, chewing on a pen when he wasn’t mouthing the words and looking back toward us to see if the joke had landed.

By the end of the night, we came away with some souvenirs, pictured below. I’m particularly excited about showing my students the rundown – those blue sheets of paper that keep the production crew on track.

“Delegate” credentials and hat from the Late Show’s RNC live taping.
The rundown from the Late Show’s RNC live taping, 7-18-16.

It’s a bit of a Hail Mary for Colbert, who has struggled to gain his footing since taking over for David Letterman almost a year ago. Colbert is far behind Jimmy Fallon in the ratings game, lately slipping behind Jimmy Kimmel as well. Pulling Stewart out of the woods (literally) makes for a nice viral moment, as does a brief return to the Colbert Nation, but these are just callbacks to the time when it all worked (new showrunner Chris Licht on those decisions). When audiences, to this day, welcome Colbert with chants of “Stephen, Stephen,” it’s a tribute to the overly confident, faux-conservative character he personified for a decade. Stephen Colbert, host of the Late Show, is a genuinely nice guy, but the humor is harder to come by and he seems absolutely disengaged from the typical celebrity interview.

Worse for Colbert, the act following his own is buzzing. James Corden has lots of people talking the Late Late Show. It’s not just Carpool Karaoke – he has a knack for bringing out the best in Hollywood guests, and the show’s structure has some creative ways to accent that. It’s probably the late night talker I enjoy most at the moment, and definitely fits with the shift toward viral celebrity brought on by Jimmy Fallon.

I don’t think a swap is imminent. Corden’s YouTube hits haven’t yet translated to TV ratings. More importantly, CBS has invested in Colbert as a major face of the network. But, they will continue to tinker with the Late Show until it finds its niche. For me, at least, the week of live shows was the closest they’ve come.

The Trump Convention

Of course, Colbert’s live shows were but a small slice of media coverage for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland – the coronation of Donald Trump as the presidential nominee of the Grand Old Party.

I’ve done research on conventions before. They’re glorified infomercials. For a week, the party and its candidate receive a wealth of (traditionally favorable) media coverage while opponents lay low. It’s also the time when average voters begin to pay (slightly) more attention to the election. All told, the “convention bump” candidates can receive in the polls is real.

I thought Trump would nail this aspect of the campaign. He’s a showman, after all. And yet, his convention was plagued with unforced errors. On the first night, Trump’s wife, Melania, delivered a speech that plagiarized portions of Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC address. TurnItIt, the plagiarism detection tool familiar to students and educators, wrote this blog post.

Scheduling was a disaster in the early nights, as featured speakers Rudy Giuliani and Joni Ernst got shuffled to time slots when the broadcast cameras weren’t watching and – in the case of Ernst, many delegates had already left the arena.

Usually, a weird Nazi salute-looking wave would be enough to distract from your message. But night three of primetime was sabotaged by Ted Cruz. Even more shocking than him being invited to speak at all was that the Trump campaign saw an advance of his remarks and still let him upstage what was supposed to be running mate Mike Pence’s introduction to the nation.

Trump’s on-stage appearances prior to his capstone address were surprisingly awkward. His first night entrance was part-Ben Carson, part-Undertaker. His brief interaction with Pence was far from the typical hands-raised presentation of the ticket to the audience.

(If wrestling’s not your thing, that’s the Undertaker’s theme music laid over Trump’s entrance. He actually walked out to “We Are the Champions.” Missed opportunity, if you ask me.)

Trump’s closing speech on Thursday night clocked in at 75 minutes – almost double the typical duration. It was a tour de force of twisted-to-outright fabricated statistics (Politifact’s got you covered). It was loud and bombastic, though toned down by Trump standards. He often referred to Hillary Clinton as his nameless “opponent,” and never as, “Crooked Hillary.” When the crowd chanted “Lock her up” – rhetoric that was amplified by some convention speakers – Trump responded, “Let’s defeat her in November.” His ad-libbed line about not totally deserving the support of Evangelicals was as close to introspective as you’ll ever see the guy who emblazoned his name above the stage like so…

Initial indications are that the speech was well-received, at least by Trump’s base. I have doubts, however, as to whether it will court undecided voters. First, the only policies which Trump ever expounded upon were his fringe ideas on immigration, which are hotly contested among his own party and widely disapproved everywhere else. Second, the speech was overly bleak and angry, even for a challenging party. Fear appeals become riskier as they become stronger. Trump’s emphasis on fear and chaos drowned out the very limited time he devoted to fixing those things. If undecideds don’t see the same scary world as Trump painted, they were left with little other reason to support him.

By the way, the ratings are in, and the Trump convention drew a slightly larger audience than Mitt Romney’s in 2012, but much smaller than John McCain’s in 2008. It’s worth noting that those conventions were held in late August and early September, respectively, meaning much of the country is back to normal school/work schedules and less likely to be vacationing. For mid-July, the numbers weren’t bad.

We’ll put Clinton and the Democrats under the microscope next week.

The Ailes Empire

Before Trump spoke, the conservative world was already reeling from the fall of its most significant media figure. That’s where I place Fox News boss Roger Ailes (yes, even ahead of Rush Limbaugh). Ailes was forced to resign from the conservative cable giant he built after allegations of sexual harassment from former anchor Gretchen Carlson. Carlson filed a lawsuit on July 6, and a little over a week later, initial statements in defense of Ailes had been replaced by multiple female employees coming forward, including Megyn Kelly, who has become a superstar since the primary debates.

[It’s more than just Ailes, it’s institution-wide, former correspondent Rudi Bakhtiar and a host of anonymous sources told the New York Times.]

I was being a tourist while this was going on, and things were extremely quiet outside the News Corp. headquarters on the Avenue of the Americas.

In CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter (a must if you’re at all interested in this sort of stuff), Dylan Byers framed it this way: “This is one of the most significant days in the modern history of the Republican party: Trump accepting its nomination for President of the United States, and Ailes stepping down from running the most powerful platform in conservative media…”

Gabriel Sherman is the man to follow for this story. He literally wrote the book on Ailes (here’s an excerpt), and his reporting on the fallout has been top notch.

This could be significant. Rupert Murdoch is a businessman above all else, and he knows the otherwise unoccupied conservative television niche is where Fox News makes its money. But there are those who wonder whether Ailes’ successor will steer the channel more center-right than it already is. Breitbart, meanwhile, is already aiming to take a piece of the market share.

For what it’s worth, I don’t see the political ideology of Fox News changing much post-Ailes. What does bear watching is how it responds to and participates in controversies moving forward. Ailes and his public relations chief Irena Brignati aggressively defended the channel’s “fair and balanced” mantra, shielding (muzzling?) talent from critical inquiries. Murdoch’s sons seem less amenable to the tabloid aspects of their father’s empire, and that may include some of the more bombastic opinionmakers at Fox News.

The Turkish Coup

One final note. While we in the U.S. focus on the election, Turkey saw an attempted coup. CNN’s Turkish studios were overtaken by rebels. A camera pointed at the empty anchors desk remained on, feeding chilling audio to the world. Poynter’s got a good recap.


Have suggestions for the Media Rundown? Email me or tweet @voiceofD.

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