The one and only “Late Show With David Letterman” will end its 22-year historic run on Wednesday night — and a look back on the show’s numbers truly quantifies the legendary host’s TV and pop cultural impact.
The ratings for “Late Show” have seen a decline as the late-night landscape’s competition got stiffer and social media and streaming options evolved viewing habits over the years. But that evolution is even more distinct when 2015 is compared to Letterman’s early days behind the desk. Ratings from “The Late Show’s” 1992-1993 season debut compared to his final season certainly illustrate the generational switch as millennials of the younger ratings demographic have turned to Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Letterman’s successor Stephen Colbert, as well as viral stars Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel.
Dave’s first season averaged a 4.39 rating in the key 18-49 demographic and 7.8 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. That initial run marked his best year by far with the actual debut episode on Aug. 30, 1993 reeling in 23 million viewers. Letterman ranked No. 1 in his timeslot through the 1994-95 season. The next year, he began to trail “The Tonight Show,” which is still the case today with exception of winning total-viewers in 2009-2010 during Conan O’Brien’s short-lived stint before Jay Leno returned in February of that season.
Currently, Letterman is pulling just a 0.53 rating in the demo and 2.8 million total viewers season-to-date, according to Nielsen’s current ratings, which count Live Plus 7 Day numbers where available. The personal low rating matches last year’s demo mark, though his overall viewership is up slightly from 2013’s 2.7 million as baby boomers tune in for a final glimpse at greatness.
Unsurprisingly, Letterman’s social media presence is not as impressive as his peer contemporaries. At the time of this publishing, “The Late Show” had just under 330,000 Twitter followers on its official account (@Letterman). For comparison, Dave’s replacement, Stephen Colbert, has a rounded 7.8 million fans on the social site. Letterman’s recently installed counterpart on CBS’s “Late Late Show,” James Corden, has 5.1 million followers. While ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel slightly bests Corden with 5.2 million and NBC’s Jimmy Fallon crushes them all as reigning social king with 25.2 million Twitter followers.
“The Late Show” has just under 216,000 subscribers on YouTube with Corden’s “Late Late Show”channel already handily beating those numbers, indicating good news for CBS chief Les Moonves’ strategy of courting younger late night viewers with the Colbert-Corden two-punch. Kimmel and Fallon blow those numbers away entirely with 13.2 million total YouTube subscribers between the two network rivals.
Though Letterman is well-respected as a pioneer among his late-night peers and hailed as a legend who lead the way, statistically he ends his run on a low note. Letterman ranks as least-favored among late night hosts, according to a Q Scores study TheWrap conducted in 2014. At the time, Letterman’s 11 Positive Q Score — a polled measurement of how beloved an individual is — placed him ahead of only the since-unemployed Arsenio Hall. Colbert is top of the crop among late night with a 25 Q Score, again more proof that the hiring of the host by Moonves hits the right notes on multiplatforms.
But what Letterman does school his newbie peers on is longevity and experience. As of May 18, Dave’s show has filmed a whopping 6,026 combined episodes of NBC’s “Late Night” and CBS’ “Late Show.” Counting both programs, Letterman surpassed Johnny Carson as the longest-running late-night talk show host ever in 2013, totaling more than 30 years under his Worldwide Pants belt.
And Letterman has Emmys — six to be exact. That said, Dave’s last win was in 2001-2002, and he hasn’t been nominated since 2010. So, yes, social media and online video may have passed the legend by and he was certainly ready to hand over the reigns with the announcement of his retirement. But before Colbert’s September 8 debut and the intervening months off in between, we have Dave’s farewell on Wednesday night. Viewers and industry peers alike will remember him fondly, no matter what the numbers say.