The return of network late-night talk shows during the TV writers strike provided a ratings bounce for most of the competitors, with NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” scoring wins in their time slots, according to early Nielsen ratings numbers.
That put writerless Leno ahead of CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman,” whose Worldwide Pants production company reached an agreement with the Writers Guild of America that let scribes work for that program.
Fast national ratings may be available later Thursday afternoon and may change the competitive picture somewhat from the overnight numbers from 55 markets metered by Nielsen Co. The early numbers suggest that perhaps viewers were more interested in seeing Mr. Leno work with a short staff than Mr. Letterman with his full crew behind him.
Mr. Leno’s “Tonight Show” averaged a 5.3 household rating in the 55 overnight markets and a 12 share, up 47% from the program’s overnight season average of a 3.6 rating. Last night’s marks were the highest overnight numbers since Dec. 7, 2005.
Mr. Letterman’s “Late Show” averaged a 4.3 household rating/10 share Wednesday night, up 39% from its overnight season ratings average of 3.1.
Mr. O’Brien’s “Late Night” averaged a 2.5 rating/8 share, its highest since Dec. 21, 2005, and a 56% improvement over the season average of 1.6.
Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show” averaged a 1.9/6 Wednesday, up 27% from its season average of 1.5.
“Last Call With Carson Daily,” the latest of the late-night shows and the first to return to originals without writers in December, averaged 1.4/6 Wednesday.
ABC’s “Nightline” posted a 3.0/6 Wednesday, followed by “Jimmy Kimmel” with a 1.4/4.
(Season overnight averages for the ABC shows were not available Thursday morning.)
Nielsen’s ratings represent the percentage of all TV homes in the measured area that were tuned to a particular show. The share represents the percentage of all TV sets that were in use in that area that were tuned to the show.)
The shows played off their strike-induced absences.
“Gawd, it’s good to see you,” Mr. Ferguson said at the end of his first new monologue in the two months since the writers strike sent late-night talk shows into reruns.
NBC-owned “Tonight Show” and “Late Night” and ABC-owned “Jimmy Kimmel” are not able to bring back their writers because those networks have not settled with the striking WGA. In addition, the WGA is picketing and otherwise pressuring stars and other potential guests to not cross the picket lines.
Worldwide Pants-owned “Late Show” and “Late Late” on CBS have negotiated a deal with the WGA. That gives them the advantage of being able to put their full writing staffs back to work starting with Wednesday’s shows and makes them the only shows bearing the WGA’s seal of approval for potential guests.
A partial tale of the tapes from Wednesday on the air showed:
—Mr. Letterman back in full production mode, from the taped opening in which Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said the late-night shows’ return means all good things must come to an end. The show included a Rockettes-style picket line, a monologue with best wishes for still-striking writers and jokes about Mr. Letterman’s Gabby Hayes-ish strike beard. The host returned to his Top 10 list (delivered by striking writers from other shows about what they want). Robin Williams—a favorite late-night guest because you just wind him up and let him go—was the show’s WGA-supportive first guest.
—A clean-shaven Jay Leno did a monologue that included an expression of support for the writers. Mr. Leno said the bit was kosher according to WGA rules because he wrote it and tested it on his wife, Mavis. That contention was disputed by some familiar with the WGA rules. GOP presidential frontrunner Mike Huckabee, who apparently had not understood that he was crossing picket lines by appearing on “Tonight,” was Mr. Leno’s main guest. The candidate did double duty by both chatting with the host and playing the guitar before flying back to Iowa in time for Thursday’s caucuses.
—A clean-shaven Jimmy Kimmel did no monologue, citing his uncertainty about what the WGA strike rules are. But he said he is “pissed off” at the WGA for so aggressively working against the late-night shows that have been unable to cut their own deals as Mr. Letterman’s production company did. His main guest: Andy Dick.
—A strike-bearded Mr. O’Brien also expressed support for the writers, doing a video bit about how he’s spent downtime annoying colleagues with his guitar-playing and live demonstrations about how much time he can take up spinning his wedding band. First guest Bob Saget, while a union son of a union father, didn’t have the star power of Robin Williams.
—A fake-bearded Mr. Ferguson declared: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted” at the top of a strike-centric show that relied heavily on his trademark extended monologue and some of his character sketches. He signed off by telling viewers, “Let me just say how much of a pleasure it is to be back in your living room or bedroom or wherever the hell you have your television, and that all of the comedy that you saw tonight, whether improvised or written, was brought to you by WGA writers.”