Strike Had Little Bearing on Late-Night Ratings

Feb 17, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Somewhere in the ratings for the duration of the writers strike, there is fodder for a joke about how many writers it takes to put on a late-night show.
And more than one late-night writer would be hard-pressed for a witty retort to explain how NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” without its writers, could hold on to first place against CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman,” which had all its writers back on the job six weeks before the strike ended.
The rub, however, lies in the year-to-year ratings results.
CBS’ late-night shows retained more of their audiences and key demos year-to-year, while NBC’s lineup posted double-digit year-to-year loses since its shows went back into originals the first week of the new year.
For the first quarter through the week of Feb. 4, “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” had a 26% margin of victory over “Late Show With David Letterman.”
Among much-sought-after men 18 to 34, “Tonight” had a 50% lead over “Late Show.” In the
entire 18 to 49 demographic group, “Tonight” led “Late Show” by 19%.
On the other hand, “Letterman” year-to-year showed very little loss of viewership. The CBS show was flat in total viewers and down 6% in 18 to 49 and 7% in 18 to 34 demo.
“Leno,” meanwhile, was off 17% in total viewers, 23% in 18 to 49 and 19% in 18 to 34.
Some late-night observers had believed Mr. Letterman’s agreement to bring the writers for “Late Show” and “The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson” back to work early would give him a boost to regain the No. 1 slot he enjoyed for more than a year after he debuted on CBS in 1993—until he lost it to Mr. Leno in 1995 for good.
Those people couldn’t have known just how little difference there would be between an ostensibly writer-free “Tonight Show” and a writer-heavy “Tonight,” but they should have known that people’s ingrained habits and sense of humor would not change just because of a strike, said widely quoted pop-culture Prof. Bob Thompson.
“Late night is a habit kind of thing. It’s a very difficult thing to change,” said the Syracuse University professor. “If in fact there would have been a vast difference between having writers and not having writers during this hundred days, that might have been a different story.”
He said as long as the shows were topical when they returned, faithful viewers had no need to make a radical viewing shift.
Prof. Thompson said he’s not suggesting late-night shows don’t need writers, and lots of them. In fact, he finds it hard to believe that Mr. Leno, his NBC stablemate Conan O’Brien, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert of the same channel’s “The Colbert Report” were pulling their impressively polished and witty shows “out of thin air.”
But he applauded Mr. O’Brien, who succeeded Mr. Letterman as the host of NBC’s “Late Night” and who will succeed Mr. Leno on “Tonight” in 2009, as the only late-night personality who chose to reinvent and broaden his material while he was operating without all writing hands on deck.
“I’m glad the writers are back for all the other late-night shows. I’m going to kind of miss the Conan strike shows,” Prof. Thompson said. “I made an attempt to TiVo them, to keep them, because I think they’re going to be historic documents.”
For the record, for 2008 to date, “Tonight” averaged 5.11 million total viewers, 1.94 million of them in the 18-49 demographic and 787,000 of them in the 18-34 demo.
“Late Show” on CBS averaged 4.05 million viewers, 1.63 million of them in 18-49 and 526,000 in the 18-34 demo.
“Late Night” on NBC averaged 2.02 million total viewers (down 20%), 1.07 million of them 18-49 (down 22%), and 546,000 of them 18-34 (down 20%).
“The Late Late Show” on CBS averaged 1.82 million total viewers (down 3%), 780,000 18-49 (down 9%), and 275,000 18-34 (down 10%).
ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” averaged 1.63 million total viewers (down 8%), 754,000 of them 18-49 (down 15%) and 313,000 18-34 (down 13%).

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