‘Conan’ Calls It Quits Amid Worst Ratings Slide of All the Late-Night Talk Shows

The TBS series has lost 29% of its viewership season to date

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Conan O’Brien is stepping away from the grind of a nightly talk show on Thursday, when the final episode of “Conan” airs on TBS. It’s probably time to call it quits, according to Nielsen ratings.

Season to date, “Conan” has averaged just 282,000 total viewers per episode, according to Nielsen, with 132,000 of them coming from the important adults 18-49 demographic. Those numbers include one week of delayed viewing, and are down from September-to-September year, when O’Brien attracted 399,000 total viewers. Of that all-in (TV) audience, 205,000 came from the key demo. Those were pretty much right in line with O’Brien’s 2018-19 numbers.

But the viewership decline in 2020-21 was quite steep: “Conan” sunk 29% in total viewers and 36% in the main demo. And in this case, we really can’t blame the coronavirus pandemic too much because of how steady (in mediocrity, sure) the show had been in the years leading up to this final season.

“Conan” shifted to a half-hour format in 2019, which technically should have helped ratings averages, if anything.

Stephen Colbert has been the outright leader in the late-night space since 2018-19 (and No. 1 in total viewers since before then). It would be unreasonable to expect a cable late-night show to keep up with broadcast television viewership. It is perfectly fine, however, to compare their respective year-to-year declines on a percentage basis.

Season to date, Colbert is averaging 2.915 million total viewers (down 16%) and 425,000 viewers (-20%) in the key demo. Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is averaging 1.533 million total viewers (down 21%) and 343,000 viewers (-28%) in the key demo. “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” has brought in 1.800 million total viewers (down 9%) and 344,000 viewers (-21%) in the demo.

As you can see, among those shows, “Conan” claims the worst declines in both main Nielsen metrics.

Here, we should point out that a lot of late-night viewing happens in clip form on social media (including YouTube). Those clicks are not included in Nielsen’s TV ratings.

Colbert, Fallon and Kimmel all run for one hour, starting at 11:35 p.m. O’Brien’s show (now) runs from 11 p.m. to 11:30, which should be an advantage.

The closest thing to “Conan” on cable is probably Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” which also airs at 11 p.m. But “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah obliterates O’Brien head to head, currently averaging 905,000 total viewers (down 11% from last year) nightly. Of those, 301,000 come from the key demo, which is -21% from the previous year.

So we’ll miss you, “Conan,” but unfortunately there are not a hell of a lot of Americans who can (honestly) say that. Or at least, who say that with Nielsen receipts to back it up.

“Conan” premiered in November 2010, following NBC’s decision to hand “The Tonight Show” back to Jay Leno after O’Brien hosted for just shy of eight months.

O’Brien is now headed to fellow WarnerMedia platform HBO Max, where he is putting together a weekly series for the streaming service. Not many details about the new project are known beyond that.


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