Reading this latest report about the ratings of "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" vs. "Late Night with David Letterman" should have us all wondering how long it will be before NBC considers retooling "The Tonight Show." Bill Carter at The New York Times reports today that not only are reruns of "Late Night" beating out new episodes of "The Tonight Show," but the gap widened considerably during the second week of Letterman's vacation -- from 7,000 to 280,000. (Let's assume, though I couldn't find data to support it, that Letterman's reruns last week included some really strong guests and that explains part of it.)
Equally troubling is that ABC's "Nightline" -- the show that everyone thought would wither away awhile ago after the departure of Ted Koppel -- was the viewership leader, with 3.36 million viewers; Letterman had 3.27 million, O'Brien, 3 million. That's absolutely stunning when you consider how the plethora of cable news offerings gives "Nightline" substantial competition.
For now, one can only imagine that NBC is grasping the fig leaf of dominating the 18-to-34 demographic, which, as I've said here before, is a vestige of how network execs crow about ratings supremacy that really should go away. In that, Carter points out Letterman only scored 315,000 viewers to O'Brien's 574,000. Neither, frankly, is a number to write home about.
My bet here is that NBC is taking a wait-and-see attitude until the fall, pegging its hopes on the fall schedule to give O'Brien a stronger lead-in. But that depends on a lot; strong ratings of its unprecedented, five-night-a-week "Jay Leno Show," which would lead in to local news, which would lead in to ... Well, you get the drift. There are a lot of disconnects there and it's certainly no sure thing.
Previous coverage of "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" at BNET Media: