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Tight Late-Night Race Not Fazing NBC

”A major change like this happens only once in 17 years. There are going to be shifts that go on.“

CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” continues to do what was once unthinkable going against Jay Leno: Beat NBC’s “Tonight Show” in total viewers.


And several new late-night competitors are joining the fray on the cable side this fall.


However, now more than two months into Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” era, NBC officials continue to insist they are not at all concerned about the ongoing prospects of an 11:30 franchise that used to generate about $50 million in year in annual profit under Leno.


“A major change like this happens only once in 17 years,” said NBC late-night chief Rick Ludwin, shuttling between the network’s Burbank offices and the TCA press tour in Pasadena Wednesday. “There are going to be shifts in viewers that go on.”


In recent weeks, Letterman has continued to bolster his total-viewer position. Last month, “The Late Show” enjoyed three straight weeks of total-audience victories over “Tonight,” averaging 3.3 million viewers, up 16% from a year ago.


It was the first time that had happened since July 1995.


On “Conan’s” side, “Tonight” scored a 37 percent margin of victory among 18-49-year-old viewers for the week of July 13-17, despite the fact that “Letterman” featured a high-profile appearance from Paul McCartney that week. Over that same period, “Conan” also nearly doubled “Letterman’s” performance among 18-34-year-olds.


Since mid-June, when the late-night race began to tighten up after more than a decade of Leno dominance, NBC has countered that it’s the key adult demos that count, notably viewers 18-49.


Ludwin said that’s still the only benchmark that counts. “We’re winning in the only demographic advertisers pay a premium to reach,” he explained.


For their part, however, NBC officials remain sanguine. They believe Leno’s adoption of the 10 p.m. slot each weeknight will establish momentum for viewers partial to variety-comedy programming that will carry through local news and all the way to 11:30.


"The true test is going to come this fall," said NBC primetime president Angela Bromstad, speaking at the network’s executive TCA session Wednesday morning.


Meanwhile, NBC officials also have no expressed misgivings over new cable competition emerging this fall, with George Lopez launching a 11 p.m. comedy-variety show on TBS and Mo’Nique doing the same for BET.


Both shows, they believe, will attract audience members from ethnic groups who currently aren’t big Leno-Conan viewers.


“The good shows tend to not cannibalize the audience as much as they expand it,” Ludwin said. “This will just make the pie larger.”


While refusing to commit to any major creative changes to the “Tonight Show,” Ludwin believes O’Brien has only begun to establish momentum, as he slowly ports over bits and routines that previously worked on his 12:30 “Late Night” franchise.


The recently re-introduced movie-review spoof “Conan and Andy on the Aisle,” which features O’Brien and sidekick Andy Richter riffing on doctored movie clips, is one example.


“You’re going to see more of those things going forward,” Ludwin said. “We have a whole bunch of new segments coming.”