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Conan O'Brien's ratings slip, but race with David Letterman is just starting

June 10, 2009 |  2:03 pm

Conan3_kkmcbjnc On June 1, the premiere of "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" began with a filmed piece that found the tall, skinny host, dressed in suit and tie, jogging across America to get to his new studio in Universal City.

But O'Brien might need to pick up the pace. After a strong start in the ratings, "Tonight" is already slipping behind CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," the rival program that O'Brien's predecessor Jay Leno defeated handily for years.

On Tuesday night, Letterman edged past O'Brien in the overnight household ratings (3.4 rating/8 share vs. 2.9 rating/7 share) for the first time since O'Brien took over his show, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. More troubling for NBC, "Tonight" has also lost significant chunks of audience with each airing since the premiere, when it scored a hefty 7.1 rating/17 share. "Tonight's" numbers since late last week have been well below Leno's overnight average during the first three months of this year (4.1 rating/10 share). Letterman's numbers, meanwhile, are landing within his usual range (3.0 rating/7 share for the first quarter).  

Those figures don't tell the whole story, though. O'Brien's premiere was heavily promoted, so a steep drop-off in viewers afterward was to be expected. Also, the NBA Finals on ABC have disrupted some local programming around the country. And maybe most important, while Leno's audience skewed old for a late-night program, NBC points out that O'Brien is strongest among young adults. It won't be clear how well the host is hanging on to those viewers until the complete ratings for O'Brien's first week are published Thursday. It's likely that, even with his declines, O'Brien will still emerge stronger among young people than Leno was. And given that rates for most TV ads are determined by a program's success in wooing viewers under 50, that may be more than enough for NBC.

The real battle is just beginning. Late-night rating trends tend to shift slowly, as viewers develop loyalties for this or that host over months or years. When Letterman took over his CBS show in 1993, he initially racked up big victories over Leno, but within a few years emerged as the perpetual runner-up.

The chaotic late-night race today bears little resemblance to that era. In the fall, NBC will launch a new 10 p.m. weeknight show with Leno. The impact of that program on O'Brien's ratings is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, both Letterman and O'Brien will have to keep an eye over their shoulders for ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who after a touch-and-go start seems to have become a long-term player for the network. And of course broadcasters continue to shed late-night viewers to Adult Swim, Comedy Central and other alternatives.

In other words, in his race to stay atop the late-night ratings, O'Brien has not one but many rivals.

-- Scott Collins

Photo: Conan O'Brien makes his debut as the host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." Credit: Paul Drinkwater / NBC

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