Conan, Kilborn continue to dominate auds

Blame Conan O’Brien and Craig Kilborn if you’re bleary-eyed in the morning.

With more Americans glued to their TV sets beyond midnight, latenight is one of the only dayparts that has managed to add viewers over the past few years.

Despite cable’s recent forays into the time period, CBS’ “Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” and NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” continue to maintain their audiences.

Amazingly, “Late Late Show” and “Late Night” are each able to sustain themselves without cannibalizing the other’s audience — thanks to very devoted fan bases.

“Conan and Craig offer very different shows. Their TV personas are almost polar opposites,” says Rob Burnett, president and CEO of Worldwide Pants, the production company for “Late Late Show,” as well as “Late Show With David Letterman.”

O’Brien’s show is more comedy-based, while Kilborn’s show is more “Craig-centric,” as one latenight exec puts it.

With his supermodel guests and smug sense of humor, Kilborn, the former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” appeals to frat boys. The self-deprecating O’Brien, a former “Simpsons” writer, relies more on sophisticated verbal humor and surrealistic gags.

Of course, viewers too sleepy to fiddle with their remotes give O’Brien the advantage since he benefits from a Leno lead-in. “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” routinely beats “The Late Show With David Letterman” in ratings.

Last season, O’Brien’s “Late Night,” the distant front-runner, was flat in ratings (averaging a 2.0), while Kilborn’s “Late Late Show” enjoyed an 8% increase in its household ratings (1.3) and a 14% jump among adults 18-49 (0.8) and men 18-49 (0.8).

“If we can stay flat, I’d be thrilled because of what’s going on in primetime (with audience attrition),” says “Late Night” exec producer Jeff Ross.

“The nature of the daypart is that you’re clawing and scraping for every awake eyeball you can find. You’re fighting people going to sleep.”

And sleep seems to be losing out. HUT (homes using television) levels from 12:30-1:30 a.m. have increased consistently over the past four seasons.

“We look at so many dayparts where everybody’s numbers are declining. It’s nice to look at a daypart for once and see that each season, it keeps growing,” says Mitch Semel, senior VP, East Coast programming, in charge of late night for CBS.

To capitalize on the burgeoning daypart, NBC will resurrect its latenight interview show “Later” early next year with MTV vet Carson Daly as the host.

Latenight shows are appealing to the broadcast nets because, in success, they can be big money-making franchises.

“By television terms, they are relatively cheap to produce,” Burnett says. “If you can manage to create a brand, you can do very well.”

For instance, while NBC at one time paid $13 million for an episode of “ER,” a latenight network talkshow costs a modest $50,000-$100,000 an hour.

The latenight shows don’t command the same ad rates as “ER,” but advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach the young men they attract.

“The male 18- to 34-year-old demo is a group that’s very hard to find in concentrated bunches anyplace on a schedule on any network. But, they come to late night,” says Rick Ludwin, senior VP, late night and primetime series for NBC Entertainment.

“It’s no surprise then that during the most recent upfront, it was one of the dayparts that had the least impact from the slowing economy and soft ad market.”

But growth is a relative thing at that time of day. “If you go up 2/10ths of a rating point, everyone is high-fiving,” Ludwin says.

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