The Broadcast Late-Night Wars

Scandal almost always helps boost ratings for a TV show, and David Letterman’s recent extortion/office sex imbroglio has only reaffirmed that truth. But the battle for broadcast viewers after the late local news is more complicated than that. Though CBS has watched its ratings rise on the scandal, NBC, which placed its bet on Conan O’Brien this summer, is attracting younger viewers.

Based on live-plus-same-day ratings from Nielsen Media Research for the week of Sept. 28, CBS’ The Late Show With David Letterman delivered 4.4 million viewers, a 22 percent hike from the prior week (Letterman first revealed the extortion/sexcapades on Oct. 1). NBC’s The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien averaged 2.7 million, down a whopping 43 percent.

Demographically, however, Conan still finished first with a 1.1 rating in adults 18-49 (versus a 1.0 for Letterman) and a 1.0 among adults 18-34 (Letterman: 0.7). Letterman, whose median age this season to date is 10 years older than Conan (57.1 vs. 47.1 years), led among adults 25-54, with a 1.4 rating (to Conan’s 1.2).

Viewing levels could increase as coverage of Letterman’s confessed antics remains in the news. But the underlying demo story has been developing since O’Brien stepped in for Jay Leno as host on June 1. Two weeks into the new season, The Tonight Show’s median age has dropped 8.2 years (55.3 to 47.1). Letterman, in contrast, has aged up from 53.3 to 57.1.

And four months into Conan’s run, Letterman remains the most watched (at 3.6 million, up 13 percent, to Conan’s 31 percent drop to 3.2 million). But Conan continues to dominate in the young adult demos (including 20 percent growth among adults 18-34).

“Both franchises bring different attributes to late night,” said Brad Adgate, senior vp, director of research at Horizon Media. “Conan has value because he attracts the younger audience advertisers covet. And Letterman has inherited Leno’s shoes as an older and more universally appealing option. They are two very different buys.”

ABC’s competing Nightline, meanwhile, remains a player in the 11:35 p.m. half hour since O’Brien inherited The Tonight Show, with 3.6 million viewers (up 14 percent) and a consistent performance among target adults 25-54 (1.2). But lead-out Jimmy Kimmel Live is down 25 percent among adults 18-34 (0.4 to 0.3) at 12:05 a.m.

Moving O’Brien up one hour was, of course, a risk for NBC, but his replacement Jimmy Fallon has maintained the 12:35-1:35 a.m. time-period ratings demographically. Using the same June 1–Oct. 2 benchmark, The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon is equal to year-ago levels in both adults 18-49 (0.7) and adults 18-34 (0.6). CBS’ competing Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, to date, has a slightly larger audience (1.6 million vs. 1.5 million), with a similarly flat performance demographically. Fallon is delivering twice the number of adults 18-34, but in the most recent week, increased interest in Letterman helped Ferguson tie Fallon in both adults 18-49 (0.6) and adults 25-54 (0.7).

“Unless advertisers bolt, and that is unlikely, Letterman in the news will not hurt CBS in late night,” said one buyer who requested anonymity. “But NBC is holding its own. Considering the mess it has with Leno in prime, this is the least of its worries right now.”