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Media Buyers Hope Conan O’Brien Can Revitalize Late Night

Buyers think Leno and Letterman can benefit from new competition

Media outlets keep speculating on how much audience that Conan O'Brien will lure away from Jay Leno and David Letterman when his show premieres on TBS this November. But media buyers are hoping instead that he revitalizes late night, bringing new viewers and renewed interest in the time slot.

"There is a tremendous amount of wear-out fatigue in late night with Leno and Letterman," Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch told TheWrap. "Conan will come off fresh and get a tremendous amount of sampling."

"I prefer to think of it as adding life to late night in general," added Todd Gordon, senior VP and director of national broadcast at Initiative. "Competition has a way of doing that. It's an opportunity to revitalize the daypart for the potential of everyone."

As good an ad revenue take as TBS did in the recent upfront buying period for the 2010-11 season for Conan, neither Leno nor Letterman were adversely effected — meaning advertisers didn't seem to be abandoning the broadcast late-night shows, even if there is some thinking that they're tiring.

"Late night is still doing well," Jackie Kulesza, senior VP, broadcast activation director at Starcom told TheWrap. "Advertisers are still buying into it. There is still an audience that is watching, although Conan's audience will be a little younger. We have clients in and out of both shows from time to time, but there have been no mass defections."

Conan's audience will clearly be younger. During his short stint as host of NBC's "Tonight Show" when Leno moved to prime time, O'Brien's median age audience was 47, compared to 55 for Leno, since he returned in March to replace Conan. And O'Brien was starting to draw more 18-34 and 18-49 demo viewers, while lots of 25-54 viewers were defecting.

During his time as host of "Tonight," O'Brien averaged 2.97 million total viewers per night and 1.54 million 18-49 viewers. Since Leno's return on March 1, he's averaged 3.97 million viewers and 1.37 million 18-49 viewers.

The problem for Leno and Letterman is that their audiences continue older, along with the hosts. "If an advertiser wants to target 18-34, it's gotten less efficient to reach them on broadcast," Initiative's Gordon told TheWrap.

That's where O'Brien can make some advertising inroads.

One media buyer, who did not want to be identified, told TheWrap that during its upfront selling, TBS concentrated more on selling younger audience demos to advertisers for Conan's show, than it did for selling overall viewers. "If Conan does well with 18-34 viewers and brings in some 18-49, TBS doesn't care about what his total viewer number is," the buyer told TheWrap.

Gordon believes that Conan will offer an opportunity for a lot of advertisers to come back into late night — particularly movie companies, soft drinks and automotive that target younger viewers.

"Hopefully the competition will add new gross rating points to the daypart, and that's good for advertisers," Gordon said. "And hopefully [Leno and Letterman] will see this as an opportunity to revitalize their shows — not that they don't still have strong appeal."

"Leno and Letterman have been on for quite a while, so you know what type of ratings your going to get," Francois Lee, vice president and activation director at MediaVest, told TheWrap, "And they have been stable. But alternatives and new options are always good for advertisers."

Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research at Horizon Media, is predicting that after an initial early surge of audience for Conan, his viewer total will settle in at about 1.5 million a night, about half of the total viewers he was doing at "Tonight," but 2.5 million less than Leno has averaged since his return.

But Adgate says he is also concerned about the downward trend that George Lopez's TBS "Lopez Tonight" talk show has shown in the 11 p.m. time period that Conan will be inheriting. When Conan premieres in November, Lopez will move back to midnight.

"There's some concern that the time period is not heading in the right direction," Adgate said. "It would be better if those numbers for Lopez were a bit more stable."

The Lopez show premiered last fall averaging 1.39 million viewers per night and 870,000 adults 18-49, but those totals have steadily decreased each month since. Most recently, the show was averaging only 955,000 total viewers and 556,000 18-49 viewers, both down about 35 percent since the show premiered.

But Deutsch's Gardiner sees things going differently for O'Brien. "Turner has proven that it will put its money behind promoting its programming," Gardiner said. "They did it with sports and with their dramas. Late night is their next frontier. Conan will be a success. I think he'll do well."