Is Triple Threat of O'Brien, Colbert and Stewart Cable's Watershed?

Last Updated Apr 20, 2010 4:02 PM EDT

Maybe because it's actually been such a slow drip, drip, drip that it hasn't been that noticeable. But with the signing of Conan O'Brien to an 11 p.m. show on TBS, and the news of contract extensions at Comedy Central through the 2012 elections for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, we finally may have the first example of a cable time slot usurping the broadcast one.

Leno and Letterman? Maybe it's time to ask who really cares -- unless the two are busy kicking younger rivals to the curb, or being victimized by bizarre extortion plots.

Suddenly, it's not so crazy to think that if someone like Jimmy Kimmel wasn't pleased with his next contract at ABC (the current one expires this year), he might listen if cable came knocking -- particularly if he wants to lower the median age of his viewers from 52. But that's not really my point.

My point is that this could be cable's watershed moment. Though individual cable shows have been known, here and there, to get higher ratings than their network rivals, I wonder how far away we are from a time when people like Colbert, O'Brien and Stewart routinely garner higher ratings than anything the networks can put up at the same hour. Currently, Stewart and Colbert have more viewers age 18-to-34 than any of the network late-night hosts, and the median age of their viewers is 37 and 40, respectively.

Meanwhile, ratings for all of the network late-night shows have dropped in the last year. Add in O'Brien as a direct competitor on a cable network that is one of the tops in both 18-to-34 and 18-to-49, and you get the picture; it's a window into a world where TV viewing is truly platform-agnostic, where no one really cares where a show airs, and for most viewers the line that separates cable and network disappears.

Previous coverage of the late night wars at BNET Media: