Get prepared for late-night’s version of World War III.
Going into a tenth season of late-night sparring, NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” still owns sizable ratings advantages over CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman.” But CBS will seek to even the playing field next season by revamping its 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. (ET) prime-time lineup and giving “Letterman” a Viacom-oriented multimedia promotional blitz.
The moves come on the heels of ABC’s highly publicized but unsuccessful courting last March of Mr. Letterman, whose new $30 million-plus annual deal spelled out a wider off-CBS promotional push.
“Whether we want to go nostalgic with promotion on Nick at Nite or accent `Late Show’s’ music acts on MTV or VH1, it is going to be aggressive and opportunistic use of all of Viacom’s media platforms,” said George Schweitzer, CBS’s president of marketing and promotion.
However, Mr. Schweitzer is tailoring promotional campaigns to the demos of Viacom cable networks such as MTV, VH1, Nick at Night, TV Land, The National Network and Black Entertainment Television. For example, to tie in with VH1’s popular “Divas” live concert telecasts, Mr. Schweitzer has crafted a “Dave and the Divas” campaign by highlighting hip, young female-led music acts and stars set to appear on “Late Show.”
But he stressed that the cable campaigns and “heavy” outdoor signage exposure will be augmented by typical on-air campaigns in CBS’s network sports telecasts (NFL and NCAA football), in prime time and in late local newscasts on CBS affiliates.
Still, NBC’s long-term dominance in late-night presents a formidable challenge for CBS. Over the past seven years, “Tonight Show” has dominated in viewership, with its 5.9 million total viewer average holding a 44 percent advantage over “The Late Show” (4.2 million). Some industry watchers said Mr. Leno’s advantage in headcount over Dave coincided with NBC’s rise and CBS’s mid-1990s skid in the prime-time ratings.
Rick Ludwin, NBC’s senior VP of late-night programming, still calls the comparison between the two networks’ prime-time fortunes a “dog-eared excuse” for those who suggest that was the cause of Mr. Letterman’s lag behind Mr. Leno.
“There were spikes after David’s heart surgery, and the post-Sept. 11 events in New York elevated the show’s profile, but these were tiny blips,” added Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling. “That’s because week in and week out, the numbers went back to the historical ratings patterns of being stronger for Jay than for Dave.”
The NBC executive duo pointed to Nielsen Media Research national data for the second quarter (April 1-June 30), indicating that “Tonight Show” held 47 percent and 45 percent advantages over “The Late Show” in total viewers (5.65 million vs. 3.8 million) and households (4.2 rating/11 share vs. 2.9/8). Compared with the year-ago quarter, Leno was up 1 percent in total viewers, while Letterman dropped 6 percent.
However, in reviewing the June ratings, David Poltrack, CBS’s executive VP of research and planning, found “enough unusual discrepancies” between the rating returns and local metered market returns from Nielsen to request a new “unified analysis” of the national numbers. Mr. Poltrack said he saw a “red flag” when it appeared that “The Late Show” was up 6 percent year to year in the metered markets for June 3 to July 14 (3.5 rating vs. 3.3 rating), but the national sample indicated a 3 percent drop over the same span (3.0 rating vs. 3.1 rating). However, Mr. Poltrack claimed that Nielsen’s reprocessed unified national analysis actually showed that “The Late Show” moved up 7 percent year to year (3.3 rating vs. 3.1 rating).
Rob Burnett, executive producer of “The Late Show,” said strong initial advertiser reception to CBS’s 10 p.m. dramas this fall could help close the gap between the two shows. Mr. Burnett and Mr. Poltrack also expect elevated young-adult demo ratings to give on-air promo spots more traction in the 10 p.m. hour on the network and into local affiliates’ late newscasts.
“It may take some time to penetrate into the 11 to 11:30 half-hour [with local news], but I think [“Late Show”] is poised for a major turnaround,” Mr. Burnett said. “The advantage NBC had in prime time was like a 100-yard dash where Jay had an 80-yard head start. We’re just banking on David getting closer to the starting line next season.”
NBC’s Mr. Ludwin said Mr. Leno and his executive producer, Debbie Vickers, are up to the challenge, constantly creating fresh new segments for the show. “This is not something we take lightly, because `The Tonight Show’ has always been the Palace Theater of late-night,” Mr. Ludwin said. “We’re still the dominant force in late-night, but we’re not going to rest for one moment.”