Special Report: Night Fall

NEW YORK Don’t those old folks know it’s past their bedtime?

With the networks on a mission to attract younger viewers in prime time, the audience in late night—once a reliable daypart for grabbing the most coveted demos—is growing older before programming execs’ eyes. And just as broadcasters steadily lose prime-time viewers to cable and elsewhere, TV watchers in the wee hours increasingly are being lulled to sleep by the nets’ nightly gabfest, which continues to lose ground to alternative fare like Comedy Central’s faux-news lineup of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block.

For the season thus far (through May 13), the numbers are eye-opening. In terms of households, shows declining compared to last year include the longtime ratings champ, NBC’s Tonight Show With Jay Leno (down 5 percent), and its lead-out, Late Night With Conan O’Brien (also down 5 percent); CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman is down 6 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research figures. Household ratings for ABC’s Nightline are level with last year; while its lead-out, Jimmy Kimmel Live, is up 8 percent. CBS’ Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, following Letterman, is also drawing the same numbers it did last season.

In the adults 18-49 demo, Tonight, Nightline and Late Night are all down versus last year, while Letterman, Kimmel and Ferguson are flat.

One thing all the late-night network shows have in common: Their audiences are growing long in the tooth. Tonight continues to skew oldest, with a 51.9 median age, while Conan continues to draw the youngest viewers among the network shows, with a 44.2 median age season to date, per Nielsen. (Meanwhile, Conan also saw the biggest increase in its median age, up from 42.6 last year.) While all players in the 11:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. block saw their audiences age versus last year, Letterman had by far the most stability, its median age rising just one-tenth of a point, to 51.1 year over year.

Among the sea of cable channels and syndicated strips, including Seinfeld and Friends, that have tread on the networks’ after-hours turf, none has made a bigger splash than Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, a lineup of young male- targeted animated and comedy fare like Cowboy Bebop, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken. The first hour of the block, from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., has averaged nearly 2 million total viewers this season.

“Adult Swim has really struck a chord, especially with young men who don’t watch a lot of television,” says Brad Adgate, senior vp, director of research at Horizon Media. “If you have a show that brings up a large concentration of viewing males, marketers will be more than happy to participate.”

Rick Ludwin, NBC’s executive vp, late-night and prime-time programming, who has overseen the production of such programs as The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live, insists increased competition in late night has not cut into his network’s longtime ratings-winning lineup. “Some competitors have come in with slightly different offerings and are making a living on the smaller numbers they’re getting, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t seem to cannibalize what we’re doing,” he says. New players, be they broadcast or cable, only serve to expand the late-night audience rather than eat into NBC’s share, he explains.

But David Poltrack, CBS’ executive vp, research and planning, admits rivals like Comedy Central and Cartoon Network “have done well capturing the young male audience, some of it coming out of traditional late-night choices.” Even though it runs a half-hour before Letterman and Leno, during local network affiliates’ late newscasts, Comedy Central’s Daily Show nonetheless established itself as “an alternative that was taking some audience, and when they expanded [to 11:30] with The Colbert Report . . . some of that audience that was flowing from The Daily Show into Tonight and Late Show now is staying with Comedy Central. All those things are little pieces” affecting the late-night matchups, Poltrack says.

The generally weak prime-time performance of the broadcast networks this season has not helped matters in late night. “Overall, ratings are down in May—the May sweeps are down, the network 10 o’clock lead-ins are down,” Poltrack points out. Considering that state of affairs, he says, “We’re quite pleased with the stability of the late-night numbers.”

“Just holding your ground is a challenge as the audience continues to splinter,” seconds James Goldston, executive producer of ABC’s Nightline, which has surprised some by holding its own a year and a half after the departure of TV news icon Ted Koppel and the radical revamp of the show, now featuring three anchors.

The show post-Koppel, Goldston says, “maintains that commitment to serious and provocative journalism that is the defining character of Nightline. Historically, Nightline has placed third in the daypart, but we’re a competitive third, and at times, when we’ve moved up to second, we’ve shown with the new show that not only could we maintain the audience Koppel had, but could also grow that audience in pretty significant ways.”

Nightline has indeed enjoyed some strong weeks in the ratings, notably around major news events. When news broke on the morning of April 16 that a crazed gunman was on the loose on the Virginia Tech campus, it took producers no more than five minutes to get a D.C.-based crew on the road to Blacksburg, recalls Goldston. Anchor Terry Moran reported live from the scene during an extended, hour-long broadcast that night, kicking off a week of coverage that would earn the program some of its best ratings since Koppel’s tenure. The show boasted beating Letterman both in total viewers and in the key adults 25-54 demo that week.

Since Koppel’s departure, the networks’ late-night lineups have remained static—but 2009 brings another tectonic shift, when O’Brien is scheduled to ascend to the Tonight Show perch. Already, NBC is beginning the transition, if slowly, with the carrot-topped jokester last year hosting the net’s Emmy Awards telecast and last month making a rare appearance on Tonight, where he quipped to Leno that, rather than wait to take over his job, he’d decided instead to fill the vacancy about to be left by Rosie O’Donnell on ABC’s The View.

“We’re trying to create as many opportunities as we can for Conan to be on the NBC schedule other than at 12:30 in the morning,” says Ludwin.

Leno, after being “retired” by NBC, could have the last laugh. Press reports have both ABC and Fox interested in pursuing the lantern-jawed funnyman for a late-night berth. As for Fox, its late-night attentions have been centered around weekends and the offbeat Talkshow With Spike Feresten, which airs from midnight to 12:30 on Saturdays, leading out of Mad TV. The show this month was renewed for a second season this fall. When asked whether Feresten, formerly a writer for Late Show and Seinfeld, might have a future on the weeknight schedule, Todd Yasui, Fox’s senior vp, late-night programming, says, “It’s definitely something we’re thinking about in the future. The holy grail for all late night is a strip show.”

The two-hour core late-night block is a lucrative one for the nets, particularly NBC, which last year earned $446.8 million on the daypart, according to Nielsen Monitor Plus. CBS raked in $316.8 million in the same time period, while ABC rang up $143.7 million.

Even though his audience is aging, moving O’Brien into the 11:30 slot is largely seen as a shrewd move by NBC toward building younger, more desirable demos in that hour. The network downplays the demo factor, at least on record.

“I don’t think a broadcast network can survive if they narrow it down too much; you look at some shows and feel it’s in the basement of some frat house and you’re not invited to the party if you’re over 35, and that’s never made sense to me or to NBC,” says Ludwin. “We want as much of the 18-49 as possible, and 50-plus as much as those, too,” he insists.

Ludwin won’t predict what, or who, might follow Conan in the post-midnight time slot two years from now—but we should expect more of the same.

“We’ve been selling that format of comedy and interviews since 1982,” the exec points out. “We would be out of our minds [to change that].”