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Conan’s demo lead down

35+ aud leaving 'Tonight Show'

Latenight leadership in key demos is no longer looking like a lock for NBC’s “Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” which is holding off its rivals by smaller margins while consistently running third in overall viewership.

Last week, according to Nielsen in-home viewing estimates, “Tonight” (2.51 million viewers) fell behind ABC’s “Nightline” (3.16 million) in total viewers for a fifth straight week while it lagged CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” (3.32 million) for a third straight time. You have to go back to summer 1995 to find a time when “Tonight” so consistently lagged both of its rivals.

Still, while CBS’ “Late Show” and ABC’s “Nightline” are adding eyeballs at “Tonight’s” expense, neither has gained viewers in saleable demos. And though O’Brien’s demo advantages are considerably smaller than his first few weeks in the “Tonight” slot, in firstrun airings he has yet to lose the 11:35 p.m. hour on any night in 18-49.

For the July 21-26 frame, O’Brien remained on top in adults 18-49 (1.29 million), but Letterman (1 million) pulled to within fewer than 300,000 viewers and was on par with the NBC host among the adults 25-54 crowd (1.33 million for Letterman and 1.35 million for O’Brien).

“Nightline” ran third but was still in the hunt in both 18-49 (980,000) and 25-54 (1.18 million).

It’s apparent that a big chunk of the 35-plus aud has left “Tonight,” which set another all-time low in viewership last week, and some have migrated to competing entries “Late Show” and “Nightline.” None of these shows is gaining young-adult audience, though, with all three down by double-digit percentages vs. last year in adults 18-49.

For the week of July 21-26, “Tonight Show” lost a whopping 44% of the show’s year-ago audience (2.51 million vs. 4.47m) but slid by a more respectable 14% in adults 18-49 (1.29m vs. 1.50m).

At CBS, “Late Show” was up 14% in total viewers (3.32m vs. 2.87m) but down 12% in 18-49 (1m vs. 1.13m). Similarly, ABC’s “Nightline” grew year-to-year by 5% in overall viewership (3.16m vs. 3.02m) but was off by 18% in the demo (0.98m vs. 1.19m), according to Nielsen.

NBC has to be hoping that having Jay Leno as a quasi lead-in will help funnel more 35-plus viewers to “Tonight” in the fall. The fourth quarter, though, could be kind to CBS, which figures to be the dominant network in all ratings categories in the 10:30 p.m. half-hour leading into the local news.

“Nightline,” meanwhile, continues to grow its overall audience. Each week in 2009 has seen the news vet outdeliver the same frame in 2008.

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