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Week 1 Verdict: Conan’s No Leno

After a long “Tonight Show” reign, late-night’s neck-and-neck now, with some giving Letterman a slight edge.

Who is winning the new battle for late-night dominance?
 
As we’ve already seen this week, it depends on who you ask. 

 
There’s the CBS perspective: Slipping each night since Conan O’Brien took over as host June 1 — from over 7 million viewers on its premiere night to just over 3 million — NBC’s “Tonight Show” was actually beaten June 9 in the overnight ratings by CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman.”

Letterman struck again on Thursday night, besting O’Brien in the overnights, scoring a 3.5 overnight rating compared to “Tonight’s” 3.0.

 

That headline-making story seemed to signal that an 11:30 ratings race, once dominated by Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” would now be a lot more competitive.
 
But NBC came right back with a press release titled, “Conan the New King of Late Night.”

NBC officials downplayed the accuracy of those week-2 overnight numbers, which sample just a handful of markets, while up-playing the more fully accounted-for “national” numbers for O’Brien’s first week at the helm.

For that week, NBC countered, “O’Brien” had a commanding 156 percent lead in adults 18-49 — the only demographic group that mattered.
 
Indeed, there’s lots of highly publicized spin going on right now, all based on scarce data.
 
“For my people (advertisers), the only relevant number are the C3 (commercial) ratings, which we won’t have for another three weeks,” Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming and strategic audience analysis for media agency Carat, told TheWrap.
 
Still, Brill believes enough is now known to confirm, at least to some degree, her group’s earlier hypothesis: O’Brien will not dominate the 11:30 time period the way Leno did.
 
“I think it’s going to be pretty neck-and-neck from now on,” she said. “We are thinking at this point that Letterman could possibly even have a slight edge. We don’t think that (O’Brien) has the same mainstream appeal as Leno does.”
 
Under Leno, the “Tonight Show” enjoyed more than a decade of ratings dominance over Letterman and his “Late Show.”
 
Back in 2004, when Leno signed a five-year, $100 million deal to continue on as host of the “Tonight Show” until 2009, the program averaged 6.2 million viewers an installment compared to just 4.4 million for Letterman.
 
And as recently as late April, with Leno ill, a repeat of the “Tonight Show” still beat an original “Late Show” in the overnights.
 
With NBC Universal reportedly earning $50 million a year in profit with Leno at the “Tonight Show” helm, management has been second-guessed about the decision to cede the program to O’Brien ever since it was originally announced five years ago.

Many wondered why the conglomerate would tamper with such a golden goose. NBC and its CEO, Jeff Zucker, have also been criticized — amply — for their decision to put Leno at 10 p.m. each night in the fall, where there are fears that he’ll compete with O’Brien for celebrity guests and ratings points.
 
Of course, it’s early.
 
“This is just one week of overnights,” cautioned Brad Adgate, TV programming analyst for Horizon Media. “This is going to be a long process. Right now, things are resettling. I don’t think, right off the bat, NBC has anything to be worried about. After all, it took Leno years to get the upper hand over Letterman on an ongoing basis.”