RATINGS: At the Finish Line, Conan Pulls Ahead of Dave

Season-to-date, “Tonight” is now No. 1 in the demographic NBC says matters most. But what about profits?

Last Updated: January 22, 2010 @ 6:00 PM

Thanks in part to a last-minute surge, "The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien" will end its seven month as the No. 1- rated program in late night.

With final Nielsen numbers from last week now in, "Tonight" has pulled ahead of CBS’s "Late Show with David Letterman" in the season-to-date race among adults 18-49, the ad sales demographic most important to networks (and the bottom line).

Given how well O’Brien’s show has been performing this week, there’s no way Letterman will be able to pull ahead of O’Brien in the demo battle next week, when the final ratings report card on the Coco era is handed out.

Through the week of Jan. 15, "Tonight" is averaging a 1.1/4 in the demo vs. a 1.0/4 for "Late Show." Until last week, "Tonight" and "Late Show" had been in a dead heat, each averaging a 1.0 rating.

O’Brien’s averages were boosted by a strong string of shows last week. During the Jan. 11-15 period, "Tonight" soared to a 1.4/6 in the demo, forty percent better than "Late Show" (1.0/4) and the best for O’Brien since his second week on the air at 11:35 p.m.

"Late Show" still drew a bigger overall audience last week, averaging 4.5 million total viewers to "Tonight’s" tally of 3.5 million. "Tonight’s" overall audience under O’Brien’s stewardship will also be less than Letterman’s. And, has been oft-reported, "Tonight’s" once sizable lead over "Late Show" has suffered significant erosion, in part because of sharply lower primetime and local news ratings at NBC stations.

NBC executives have claimed that because of those ratings declines for "Tonight," the show was on track to lose million of dollars this year — despite being the No.1 show in the demo the network says is key to advertisers.

While revenues would clearly start to go down, it’s hard to see why "Tonight," despite its higher demo ratings, would lose money when CBS insiders say the similarly- rated "Late Show" remains very lucrative. Revenues for Letterman’s show have also declined in recent years, but CBS has trimmed its license fee for the show, ensuring continued profitability.

What’s more, O’Brien’s salary is generally understood to be much less than what CBS pays Letterman to produce "Late Show" (Dave pays his own salary via the money he makes from license fees).

NBC also owns "The Tonight Show" and can better exploit ancillary ad revenue sources, as evidenced by O’Brien’s pimping for Intel on the "Tonight Show" website. It costs in the neighborhood of $1.25 million per week to produce a show like "Tonight," a person familiar with the financials for late-night said.

Nonetheless, NBC U TV chairman Jeff Gaspin told several outlets Thursday that "Tonight" would lose money for the first time ever this year — despite its demo advantage.

Unless NBC is being tricky and counting start-up costs for O’Brien — such as the $50 million studio and office complex it built for "Tonight" — it’s hard to see how the show could so quickly go from profit to deficit in less than one year.