Conan O'Brien Still Tops Among Marketers, But Shouldn't Ratings Convince Them Otherwise?

Last Updated Jan 29, 2010 4:21 PM EST

While most of us have moved on from the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien "Tonight Show" disaster, to big issues like whether there really is a sex tape of John Edwards and Rielle Hunter, I haven't. The reason is there's a big lesson here now that the dust has settled that I can only hope NBC, the other TV networks and advertisers learn. Here it is:
It's time to get over placing so much emphasis on the 18 to 49 and 18 to 34 demographics. As the experience of Conan O'Brien shows us, they aren't really watching TV anymore.
But I fear that once again, nothing has been learned. As I was doing ratings research for this post, I stumbled across the following: a poll of 129 marketing execs about the "Tonight Show" fiasco by an outfit called Round2 Communications. It showed that 47 percent of marketers think NBC is backing the wrong horse in keeping Leno and letting O'Brien go. (Forty-one percent back Leno.) Since the raw ratings of the two in the "Tonight Show" slot don't explain that huge percentage, the only explanation is that many marketers still think it's only important to reach younger viewers and that younger viewers watch late night TV. In fact, a majority of marketers surveyed think the shift will damage NBC's late night advertising.

Uh, shouldn't the last few weeks should prove otherwise? O'Brien's fans only sprung to his ratings aid when they realized his show was a goner; when Leno returns to the time slot that he dominated for years, it's possible he won't do as well in the younger demographics as O'Brien did. Frankly, that shouldn't matter.

In a post last year, I had hoped that David Letterman's huge ratings advantage over O'Brien, would, as I put it at the time, "be the tipping point on TV's non-sensical age bias." Instead, even as O'Brien's ratings tanked, it was still more than occasionally pointed out that O'Brien usually beat Letterman in the 18-49 demographic, and that O'Brien was still beating him in 18-34, even at the height of Letterman's extortion/sex scandal. (Jeez, thinking back, it's been quite a year in late night TV.) The fact that Letterman had two million more viewers on the night he had Paul McCartney as a special guest? Don't bother yourselves with that bit of trivia! Those viewers are old!

But the slaves to youth demographics ground on. Though NBC shouldn't be the best source to look at in this vein, it was certainly not alone in touting O'Brien's performance with youth demos. Still, look at this hilarious bit of NBC spin, published only days before his "Tonight Show" began to unravel:

NBC's "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" have both tied for #1 among the broadcast networks for the week of December 21-25 in the key late-night demographic of adults 18-49. For the fourth quarter of 2009, "Tonight" has also tied for #1 in its hour with CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman" in adult 18-49 rating and out-delivered "Late Show" in 18-49 viewers.
Even after all this, it appears nothing has really changed, except for the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic that is network TV. A few months from now, when and if Leno is beating Letterman in younger demos, you can expect the same spin -- spin, at this rate, that may go on until Leno and Letterman are in the midst of lengthy retirements.

Previous coverage of Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno at BNET Media: