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Letterman nipping at Leno’s heels

Dec 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

David Letterman is feeling young, hip, and rejuvenated again-much like once-terror-wary New York.
Coming out of the November sweeps, CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman” has tightened the race in key young-adult demographics against longtime leader “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on NBC to its closest margins in six years. “Late Show” has closed the gap with “The Tonight Show” to three-tenths of a point among adults 18 to 49. “Tonight Show” has led in the demo for 23 consecutive sweeps periods. “David Letterman’s relevance and resonance across the country since Sept. 11 has paid dividends for CBS and for advertisers who made bets on him being more attractive to younger viewers,” said John Rash, chief broadcast negotiator for Minneapolis-based ad agency, Campbell Mithun.
In fact, “Late Show,” which started off by dominating the young demos from 1993 to 1995, is now realizing its best young-adult demos scores since 1997 and highest total viewers since 1995. In adults 18 to 34, “Late Show’s” 1.7 rating/8 share average has improved 21 percent year to year and moved within two-tenths of a ratings point of “The Tonight Show’s” score (1.9/9), according to Nielsen Media Research. A number of TV critics and industry watchers have credited part of Mr. Letterman’s rise in the ratings to his handling of the New York terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center three months ago-and his 3,000-mile proximity advantage over the California-based “Tonight Show.”
Tom DeCabia, executive VP of national broadcast buying for Advanswers PHD, New York, CBS News anchor Dan Rather’s tearful appearance on Sept. 18 a “major turning point” in renewing Mr. Letterman’s connection with younger viewers. (Mr. Rash also suggested that “Tonight Show’s” rise in the younger demographics stemmed from a similar turning point in 1995, when actor Hugh Grant came on Mr. Leno’s show to talk about his arrest for soliciting a prostitute.)
Youth-friendly
However, Mr. DeCabia said another factor in “Late Show’s” young-demo gains as well as those for 12:35 a.m. lead-out “Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn,” is the double-digit increase CBS made among the same demos for its prime-time lineup during the November sweeps.
David Poltrack, executive VP of research and planning for CBS Television, said “Late Show’s” median age dropped 6 percent, going from 48.5 years to 45.7 between the November 2000 and November 2001 sweeps. What it also mirrors is CBS’s drop of 2.5 years in prime time, from 52.2 years to 49.7 years in the same period, marking the first time in almost a decade that CBS’s prime time has crept under the 50-plus median-age mark.
“Basically these younger viewers are coming back to the `Late Show,’ to some extent, because more people are watching CBS in prime time,” Mr. Poltrack said.
Mr. Poltrack also attributed Mr. Letterman and Mr. Kilborn’s growth to a “migrating of viewers away from the off-network sitcoms they typically watch in late fringe on [local] TV stations.”
He said that as young-demo-friendly shows such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” are getting several years deeper into their repeat cycles, viewers are looking for alternatives such as late-night talk shows.
“Letterman had an extraordinary start in the young demos [in 1993-95], but the audience didn’t go down as much as it had to do with their frequency of viewing and having alternatives in the daypart,” he said.
But an NBC executive thinks Leno will remain on top. “To CBS’s credit, Letterman got a bump from what was an extraordinary program post-9/11 [on Sept. 18]. But I think it also comes down to CBS having increased circulation in the demos [in prime time],” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development for NBC. “It really is a marathon, not a sprint in late-night. Jay Leno has won the young demos for seven straight seasons and is still the dominant force. I do think you have to look over a long period, and I don’t see any change in his dominance.”
While the young-demo ratings are on the rise for Mr. Letterman and Mr. Kilborn, it remains to be seen if CBS’s ad sales force can translate it to cost-per-thousand increases in the fourth-quarter 2001 or first-quarter 2002 scatter markets. Mr. DeCabia said much of the late-night upfront market had sold better than other dayparts and that little scatter was left in the first-quarter market. While he acknowledged that CBS has a “good story to tell” in late-night, Mr. DeCabia said the network could only hope for overall dollar increases in the daypart because the overall weakness of the ad economy will likely preclude single- or double-digit increases in CPMs.
A buyer’s market
“The strength of the late-night marketplace is still derivative of the macroeconomic marketplace overall-and that still does not favor sellers right now,” Mr. Rash said. “This is more beneficial to buyers, though, because its gives us another strong young-demo alternative in the market” compared with NBC’s “Tonight Show.” “Both of them [Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman] are attractive to any late-night marketers, but NBC still has a competitive ratings advantage, while CBS is benefiting from multiple points of improvement in its schedules.”
NBC officials were unavailable for comment on “The Tonight Show’s” ratings.