Latenight audience flight

Viewers desert shows hit by strike

The WGA strike has had a devastating impact on latenight ratings, sending numbers for all the yukfests tumbling — and ratcheting up the pressure for the hosts to return to work.

Hardest hit: latenight leader “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” According to Nielsen data for the first full month of the strike (Nov. 5-Nov. 30), the NBC flagship — while still the No. 1 show in the daypart — suffered a stunning 40% decline among adults 18-49 vs. the same frame a year ago. It averaged a 1.2 rating/5 share in the key demo compared with a 2.0/8 last year.

NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” also saw its audience shrink. Skein fell 36% from a 1.1/7 last year to a 0.7/4 last month.

The news was equally grim for Comedy Central’s “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” Stewart’s fake newscast suffered a very real 29% decline (down to a 0.5 rating in the 18-49 demo), while Colbert was off 33% (to a 0.4).

Latenight skeins on CBS and ABC were also way down, though the impact wasn’t quite as severe.

“Late Show With David Letterman” notched a 1.1/4 for the frame, down 21% for the frame (but finishing closer to “Tonight” than it has in years). “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” averaged a 0.6/3, off 14% vs. year-ago numbers.

ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live (0.6/3) declined 14% (though its overall audience of total viewers, and its viewership among adults 18-34 — like Colbert’s — was flat).

As bad as the numbers are, it’s worth noting that they rep the worst possible comparison for the latenight shows. Last year, all the skeins aired original segs filled with big-name sweeps guests. This year, it was all repeats (including, in the case of Leno, decades-old reruns).

DVR usage has also increased markedly in the past year, another factor in the ratings declines.

The networks will no doubt have to offer serious make-goods to advertisers if the numbers continue to decline, but there is an upside for the nets: They’re not shelling out millions in salaries to the hosts (or their staffs), so the short-term financial impact will be negligible.

Still, there continues to be buzz that a few of the hosts are itching to return to work, with network execs eager to see that happen. But people familiar with the situation said it’s unlikely anyone will cross a picket line as long as serious contract negotiations are ongoing.

If talks break down, however, it’s possible one or more hosts will decide it’s time to return. Johnny Carson made a similar call about six weeks into the 1988 WGA work stoppage.

While many latenight scribes signed an ad last month urging the hosts to stay off the job, it’s unlikely a decision to return would cause a permanent rift between writers and hosts — though many would no doubt be sorely disappointed.

In an interview with last month, striking “Late Show” scribe Bill Scheft said he and his peers “would have no problem” if Letterman returned sans scribes.

“David Letterman on the air without writers, pissed off and talking about the strike, would be the greatest ally the writers could have,” he told the magazine’s website.

Nonetheless, the hosts are said to be extremely sensitive about the idea of returning — particularly given the flack Ellen DeGeneres took for choosing not to go dark. Carson Daly, who’s not a WGA member, also suffered a public rebuke by the guild when he chose to return to work after NBC said it would lay off his staff.

One longtime observer of the latenight scene said he felt it was unfair to expect the hosts to stay out. After all, this person claimed, only about 20% of most latenight shows is crafted by writers.

A number of showrunners have continued rendering producerial services during the strike. And members of the DGA who are also WGA members haven’t been pressured to give up their directing gigs (think “Star Trek” helmer J.J. Abrams).

A few weeks into the strike, reps for the various hosts began having informal talks about if and when it would be appropriate to return (Daily Variety, Nov. 16). Those conversations came as NBC, in particular, began to quietly push the hosts to return or else face the prospect of staff layoffs.

With the WGA talks ongoing, the hosts chose to stay off the air. As expected, the Peacock laid off staffers, though hosts Leno and O’Brien have been personally funding their salaries. Letterman’s Worldwide Pants has also been paying staffers on both “Late Show” and “Late, Late Show” at least part of their salaries.

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