But the young adult audience has gone to cable

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Were the latenight wars nothing but a dream?

One month after Jay Leno’s return to “The Tonight Show,” the 11:35 p.m. competition looks a lot like it did a year ago.

“The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” is once again beating rival David Letterman, whose “Late Show” slipped back to No. 2 among yakkers in all major measurements during March.

Both shows, meanwhile, continue to erode as young viewers flee the networks for cable options like Comedy Central and Adult Swim.

“Pretty much back to normal,” said TV analyst Steve Sternberg.

Sternberg was one of several analysts who predicted earlier this year that Leno’s loyal, older audience would follow him back to the later hour.

But few thought it would happen so quickly.

Leno, after all, received a flurry of bad press for agreeing to an NBC plan that moved him back to 11:35 and would have bumped Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” to midnight. (When O’Brien balked, Leno then took back his old job as well.) That situation, coupled with his disastrous 10 p.m. primetime series, roughed up both Leno and NBC.

“I’m surprised,” said Horizon Media’s Brad Adgate. “(82%) of his audience is back from a year ago. … Despite all the bruises he got, Leno is still a very resilient host.”

The latenight debacle apparently didn’t matter much to Leno viewers — half of whom are over 55 (an audience that Sternberg noted is very loyal). A well-orchestrated campaign to put Leno back in good graces among his core aud (including a guest spot on Oprah Winfrey and a luck-of-the-draw cameo in Letterman’s Super Bowl ad) helped as well.

NBC is remaining low key over the Leno news. And there’s reason not to crow just yet, as things aren’t completely the way they were a year ago for Leno.

For starters, the gap between Leno and Letterman is considerably smaller than it was in March 2009 among viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

In March 2010, Leno led among total viewers, averaging 4.9 million — but down 18% from 2009 — while Letterman brought in 3.7 million (down 5%).

The race is tighter in adults 18-49, where Leno won the month with a 1.3 rating/5 share, down 24% from last year. Letterman, with a 1.0/4, was down 9%.

This year’s March number for Leno includes strong sampling the host received for his first week back. That means an even more competitive race might be in store for April; already, for the week of March 22, just a tenth of a ratings point separated the competitors with adults 18-49.

Now that he’s back in the “Tonight Show” chair, Leno’s audience is also older than ever, with a median age of 56. That’s even grayer than ABC’s “Nightline” (55), despite the fact that news programs usually skew much older than entertainment shows. (Letterman is close behind, at 54.) When Leno left the 11:35 slot, much of his older audience did as well; but they didn’t wind up in one place. Some viewers went to Letterman or ABC’s “Nightline,” while others migrated to cable — and some may have just gone to bed earlier.

Lost in the latenight coverage, meanwhile, has been the rise of cable in the daypart. Young adults aren’t watching the broadcast yakkers — and that may have hurt Conan O’Brien’s time on “Tonight.”

Among adults 18-34, it’s Adult Swim that holds supreme. The cabler beats every net, broadcast or otherwise, at night.

In that demo, it’s Adult Swim’s off-net run of “Family Guy” that holds the crown as king of latenight, and rivals aren’t even close. “Guy” averaged a 1.7 with adults 18-34 for March; Leno posted a 0.8, while Letterman averaged a 0.7.

“We’ve really connected with this demo,” said Stu Snyder, president and chief operating officer of Turner Animation, Young Adults & Kids Media. “We launched Adult Swim as an alternative voice in the marketplace, and for this late night audience, which is primed for this content.”

Adult Swim has performed well enough that Turner has announced plans to expand it; starting next year, the block will begin at 9 p.m.

Among other cable entries, Comedy Central’s “Daily Show”/”Colbert Report” combo, TBS’ “Lopez Tonight” and even E!’s “Chelsea Lately” all hold their own quite well.

And as those cable networks have grown on the younger end of the demo, Sternberg noted that in five years, Leno’s median age skyrocketed from 50 to 56, while Letterman aged from 50 to 54, and even O’Brien leapt from 41 to 48.

“That’s pretty dramatic,” said Sternberg. “(Latenight broadcast) hasn’t been strong among 18-34 for years.”

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