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Leno, O’Brien lead falling field

Audiences drifting from post-primetime TV

Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien remained the latenight heavyweights in February, although auds continue to drift away from all post-primetime broadcast offerings.

Year-to-year comparisons for the latenight shows on ABC, CBS and NBC weren’t pretty in the sweep, although ABC’s “Nightline” — which was unaffected by the writers strike — held up better than the others.

According to Nielsen estimates for the February sweep (Jan. 31-Feb. 27), NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” topped CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” by 29% among adult 18-49 viewers (1.95 million to 1.51 million) and by 34% in total viewers (5.15m vs. 3.83m), with Leno down year-to-year in the demo by 23% year-to-year and Letterman off by 22%.

Sweep included some writerless hours of “Tonight Show,” whose scribes returned in early February following the resolution of the Writers Guild strike. “Late Show” had its writers intact throughout the month.

In the 12:35 a.m. battle, meanwhile, victory again went to NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” over CBS’ “Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” with the Peacock skein winning by 43% in 18-49 viewers (1.05 million vs. 736,000) and by 13% in total viewers (1.98 million vs. 1.76m). Both shows were down by 26% in the demo year-to-year.

Leno has won every sweeps month in the 18-49 category for the past 12 years, while O’Brien’s undefeated streak now tops 13 years.

At ABC, 11:35 a.m. entry “Nightline” averaged 1.65 million viewers in its target 25-54 demo (down 9% year to year) and 3.36 million viewers overall (down 11%). And the net’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” was off by 25% vs. February 2007 in 18-49 viewers (726,000 vs. 970,000) and by 16% in total viewers (1.64 million vs. 1.96m).

At least part of the audience declines in latenight can be attributed to the increased penetration of digital video recorders, with Nielsen’s national sample of homes with DVRs hitting 23% in February, compared with 13% at this time a year ago. As a result, more viewers are opting to play back primetime shows after 11 p.m. — a trend that picked up speed last fall, before the writers strike.

The latenight shows also could have been hampered in February by significantly lower numbers for the networks in primetime. Due to fewer scripted shows, ABC, CBS and NBC were all down by double-digit percentages, with the Peacock holding up a little better than its rivals.

NBC’s Leno and O’Brien also have opened up bigger advantages over their CBS rivals since the end of the writers strike in early February. Again, a likely contributing factor is that NBC won the 10:30 half-hour in February, while CBS had won in the fall.

For the first two full weeks since the end of the work stoppage, Leno has won the adults 18-49 category by a 50% margin over Letterman (2.01 million to 1.34 million), up from his 36% advantage for the six weeks prior to the strike last fall (2.05m to 1.51m). And the lead in total viewers has gone from 32% last fall (5.03 million vs. 3.80 million) to 49% for the first two full post-strike weeks last month (5.24m vs. 3.51m).

At 12:35 a.m., O’Brien’s advantage over Ferguson in 18-49 was 61% in the first two full weeks after the strike (1.06 million vs. 656,000), up from 48% for the six weeks prior to the work stoppage (1.13 million vs. 762,000). In total viewers, though, O’Brien’s advantage has stayed at about 18%.

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