Conan O'Brien Will Intensify Late Night Ratings Battlefield
by Gary Susman, posted Nov 2nd 2010 1:00PM
Countdown to 'Conan': Get ready for Conan O'Brien's TBS talk show debut on Nov. 8
Is Conan O'Brien getting the last laugh? As fans await the debut of 'Conan' on TBS on Nov. 8, the pompadoured host's nemesis, Jay Leno, is struggling over at NBC. Bringing Leno back to 'The Tonight Show,' the move by NBC brass that led to O'Brien's departure last winter after only a few months in late-night's top job, was supposed to improve the legendary franchise's ratings, but Leno is proving less of a draw among young viewers than Conan was at this time a year ago.
Leno also used to pound timeslot rival David Letterman routinely, but in recent weeks, the two hosts have been in a dead heat when it comes to attracting those young (18-49) viewers coveted by advertisers. And he's been losing to 'Nightline' in both the 18-49 group and among total viewers.
The competition among late-night shows for an audience that has remained fairly static over the past couple of years remains fierce, with networks and cable channels fighting for every tiny sliver, every 10,000-viewer slice of the pie, of that audience. O'Brien's re-entry into this battlefield will only make that competition more intense.
News outlets such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed Leno's recent slide among young viewers, and even his fellow comics (many of whom were on Team Coco during last winter's late-night battle) are chuckling with schadenfreude now over Leno's ratings woes. In recent weeks, Leno is still doing better in absolute viewer numbers than O'Brien did (3.7 million total viewers versus 2.5 for last October during Conan's tenure), but 'Tonight's' 18-49 viewership is at 1.3 million, down 4.4 percent from a year ago, when O'Brien was its host.
This fall, according to NBC's own figures (available at TV by the Numbers), Leno has averaged just 60,000 more viewers (in 18-49) than Letterman, with NBC's 'Tonight' and CBS' 'Late Show' at a near tie in terms of Nielsen ratings points (Both have hovered at around 0.9 in the demographic.) From 11:35 ET to midnight, ABC's 'Nightline' beats them both by a hair in the demographic (1.0) and in total viewers (3.8 million for 'Nightline,' compared to 3.7 for 'Tonight' and 3.6 for 'Late Show.').
Among later shows, ABC's 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' is averaging 1,7 million total viewers a night for the season to date, as is NBC's 'Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,' while CBS' 'Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson' has a tiny edge over both with 1.8 million. Among viewers 18-49, however, Fallon has a slight edge over the others, with a 0.6 rating, compared to 0.5 for Kimmel and Ferguson.
If those fights weren't close enough, consider that basic cable is also a major player now in late night and will become an even greater force when 'Conan' launches on TBS. In recent weeks, Comedy Central's 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' is scoring 1.7 million total viewers and a 0.8 rating in 18-49, while the channel's 'The Colbert Report' has drawn 1.2 million viewers and a 0.6 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds -- numbers similar to what Kimmel, Fallon, and Ferguson are scoring on the networks. Even Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block has scored as high as 2.0 million viewers from 11:30 to midnight, with a 0.9 rating in the 18-49 group.
According to Nielsen, the pool of 18-to-49-year-olds watching TV between 11PM and 1AM has remained constant at 34 million for the last two autumns. So it's likely that 'Conan's' entry won't add new viewers to that pie but rather make competition for its slivers that much more brutal. The question is: Which show will be hurt the most by 'Conan's' entry onto the field?
If, for instance, Conan siphons viewers from Dave, his re-entry could have the unintended effect of making Leno the undisputed No. 1 in late night again. And if he keeps viewers tuned to TBS for the midnight hour to watch George Lopez, he could be taking away viewers from Kimmel, Fallon, or Ferguson ... or all three. About all that can be said for certain: It's going to get ugly.
• Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.