And thus, in pulling the plug on Griffin in early 1972, CBS committed its late-night programming to classic feature films as well as the debut of more recent theatrical fare.This move proved an effective ploy because two months after The CBS Late Movie premiered, the Nielsen ratings recorded that it had drawn a larger audience than The Tonight Show.

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The program ran in most American television markets from p.m. (The bumpers announcing the stars of the movie notably rotated names, two or three at a time, so more of the players would be mentioned.) The program was launched following the cancellation of The Merv Griffin Show, CBS's late-night talk show from 1969 to 1972.

The show went on to have a long run in first-run syndication following CBS's cancellation.

But CBS spokespersons admitted they "did not know whether its show would be similar to others, but it [was] hopeful of devising something different" from the usual talk format exemplified by Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on NBC or Joey Bishop, who was about to bring his own brand of chat to ABC audiences.

In 1967, at its annual convention, CBS met with 750 affiliate executives and told them the network could provide a Carson-style late-night program by the following spring—but only if 85% of station-owners would commit to airing it.

A large factor in the programming decisions of many CBS affiliates electing not to clear CBS Late Night (or delaying it) was due to head-to-head competition with NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and starting in 1980, ABC News' Nightline.

ABC themselves went with a similar format to CBS Late Night, with Wide World of Entertainment, which later gave way to ABC Late Night, which consisted of reruns of that network's prime-time series and original movies.

One CBS executive had a simple explanation for this sudden (though short-lived) good fortune: "People just like to watch movies." The CBS Late Movie/Night block, however, was not always cleared by every affiliate of the network; in several markets, the block was either delayed by one hour from its regularly-scheduled time (most notably in the Central and Mountain time zones), picked up by a local independent station (including those that later affiliated with the Fox television network), or not seen at all in certain cities.

Those stations that did not carry CBS Late Night instead broadcast movies from their own libraries and/or their own lineup of off-network syndicated sitcoms, drama reruns and first-run syndication products.

The CBS Late Movie theme music was "So Old, So Young" by Morton Stevens, which also served as the theme music for CBS' prime-time movies until 1978.

A memorable aspect to the show's commercial breaks was the frequent appearance of public service announcements, from the Ad Council and other organizations, that often dealt with "mature" topics such as venereal disease, sexual and violent crimes, and abuse of hard drugs.

In fact, a 1966 poll of CBS affiliates revealed that approximately 80% of local outlets were demanding the network "supply a late evening entertainment show Mondays through Fridays" to fill the growing void in newer films.