Having hosted such iconic moments as The Beatles’ first American performance, the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City is one of the world’s most historic television studios. In recent years, the CBS studio was home to “Late Show with David Letterman” before giving way in 2015 to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Here, the show’s executive producer and showrunner, Chris Licht, Syracuse ’93, manages the most-watched program in late-night television.
Licht, who is also executive vice president of special programming for CBS, began producing “The Late Show” last spring, transitioning from his roles as the vice president of programming for CBS News and the executive producer of “CBS This Morning.”
“The transition has been pretty smooth so far. Stephen tends to do interviews with newsmakers and politicians, so the connection to my news background has been useful. And everyone at CBS has been hugely supportive,” he said.
The pressure is intense for Licht as he leads “The Late Show” team against the likes of NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in the late-night ratings battle.
“We’ve tried to differentiate ourselves a little by producing a topical show,” said Licht. “We tackle the main news issues of the day, which also gives Stephen the chance to shine with some of his political savvy.”
“A definite highlight was pulling off live broadcasts of the show following each night of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. They gave the show a high injection of energy.”
A typical day sees Licht arrive at the studio in the morning, where he first attends a meeting with the show’s writers. “We talk a little about what is happening in the world, and we sketch out a few ideas for the show taping that afternoon.”
Then it is straight to several hours of administrative work, followed by guest confirmations and a mid-afternoon show rehearsal. Finally at 5:30 p.m., the show is recorded for its national broadcast on CBS later that same evening.
Licht is on the studio floor close to Colbert during show tapings and has formed a solid working relationship with the star.
“Stephen is one of the most intelligent people you could work with, but at the same time, he is a genuine and normal guy,” said Licht. “There is a science as to how you build into a joke, and he obviously is a master at that.”
With a wide variety of issues, challenges and personalities to manage every day, Licht works hard focusing on key priorities. “I try to remove obstacles and roadblocks for our staff, so they are free to do what they do best,” he said.
Licht’s success in the cutthroat world of television has been a long and steady climb. “Directly after graduating from Syracuse, I moved out to Los Angeles with another New York Alpha Chapter brother. I was determined to break into the television industry there,” remembered Licht.
“I managed to catch on as a writer with a production company working on a ‘pilot’ show, which ultimately didn’t catch on. But in the process I made contacts at KNBC, the local affiliate station for NBC in Los Angeles.”
As Licht was settling in Los Angeles during the heady days of the O.J. Simpson trial, KNBC began broadcasting an evening news program dedicated to analyzing that day’s court proceedings. “I was hired to work on that program and, as a result, got my first taste of news producing,” explained Licht. He went on to work in local news production for nearly a decade with stints at KNBC and NBC’s San Francisco affiliate.
In 2005, Licht jumped to the national broadcast stage. First serving as executive producer for MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” he then co-created and produced the station’s popular “Morning Joe” program. Licht’s work at MSNBC was widely recognized, with Fast Company magazine naming him as one of its Most Creative People in Business.
“It was at this point when one morning I heard an audible ‘pop’ in my head,” said Licht. While in Washington, D.C., shooting “Morning Joe,” Licht suffered a brain hemorrhage at age 38.
“I was extremely fortunate not only to have survived, but to become one of the rare few who are able to make a full recovery,” explained Licht, who later wrote, “What Happened When I Almost Died,” a book on the lessons he learned from the experience.
A new challenge called Licht to CBS in 2011 when he was asked to help relaunch the network’s morning news show. Working closely with the program’s co-anchors, Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, he managed to lead “CBS This Morning” to its highest ratings in more than 20 years. Now, Licht is working with well-known comedian Stephen Colbert to take “The Late Show” to the top of the ratings and produce the most compelling content on late-night television.
“I had been at ‘CBS This Morning’ for a successful five years, so when I had the offer to switch gears and work on a late-night comedy program, I jumped at the chance,” said Licht about his current job.
Licht returns to Syracuse occasionally to speak to students in media production classes and is still in touch with many of his Syracuse chapter brothers. “While an undergraduate, we helped to launch the Balanced Man Program. The experience helped me to learn how to lead people,” he said. “I’m proud to be a part of SigEp restoring goodwill towards fraternities.”