While NBC shifts gears, cable's Adult Swim is on the rise

Is talk still the future of late night?

In taking the reins of “The Tonight Show,” Conan O’Brien was supposed to attract the next generation to NBC’s storied late night brand.

But younger viewers don’t harbor the same late-night talk show habits that their parents do — and their parents weren’t watching O’Brien.

With O’Brien out after seven months, Jay Leno, who turns 60 this month, is once again in the “Tonight” chair. Across the street, 62-year-old David Letterman recently extended his deal to remain the host of CBS’ “Late Show” for several more years.

That’s bought the networks some time, as both Leno and Letterman attract enough of a large umbrella of viewers to make their shows profitable and still attractive to advertisers.

But both Leno and Letterman aren’t getting any younger — and neither can keep those seats forever.

By closing the door on O’Brien (whose problem was not attracting enough viewers over 35) and sticking with their older-skewing hosts, the networks now run the risk of losing even more young viewers — the few still watching the networks after 11 p.m. — to other sources.

Lost in this month’s NBC latenight crisis coverage has been the rising power of cable in late night among young adults, particularly the success of Adult Swim.

The latenight sister to Cartoon Network, Adult Swim has averaged a 0.9 rating among adults 18-49 in the 11:30 p.m. hour season-to-date. That’s just a tenth of a ratings point lower than O’Brien, Letterman and ABC’s “Nightline,” all of which are delivered a 1.0 rating in the demo in the fourth quarter of 2009.

What’s more, Adult Swim is growing (up from a 0.8 last year) while O’Brien, Letterman and “Nightline” are all down vs. the 2008-2009 TV season. (At 12:30, Adult Swim is also just a tenth of a ratings point in the demo behind “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”)

“There’s an enormous trend to that,” says Seth Green, whose “Robot Chicken” stop-motion animated comedy is Adult Swim’s most-watched program. “You’re watching cable networks coming up with counterprogramming to the chat shows. It’s a very viable market out there.”

Comedy Central, of course, also does well with young adults in the 11 p.m. hour with their “Daily Show” (0.8 rating with adults 18-49, season to date)/ “Colbert Report” (0.6) duo. And TBS may have siphoned some young viewers away with Lopez Tonight” (0.6 rating), starring the only latenight host who’s not a middle-aged white guy.

What’s more, viewers also continue to turn to DVRs and online distractions late into the night.

Media analyst Steve Sternberg notes that both Leno and Letterman had median ages in the mid-50s, while even O’Brien at 12:30 had a median age of 47.

“The idea that Conan would draw a young audience was unlikely to begin with,” Sternberg says.

The networks have actually been down this road before: In the waning days of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” Carson’s audience had gotten old enough that the syndicated “Arsenio Hall Show” was able to sneak in and steal away young viewers. (That may have helped push Carson into retirement, as younger Leno and Letterman were waiting in the wings.)

Syndicators then spent much of the 1990s attempting to duplicate that success, with hosts such as Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller, Magic Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Sinbad, Stephanie Miller and plenty more — but even Hall couldn’t keep it up.

It’s now unclear where NBC’s and CBS’ latenight succession plans might lie.

“Late Night’s” Jimmy Fallon on NBC, and “Late Late Show’s” Craig Ferguson on CBS would appear to be the obvious candidates to eventually replace those two hosts.

But ask Letterman and now O’Brien: Latenight transitions aren’t as simple as they might seem.

For now, both Ferguson (five years) and Fallon (less than a year) are relatively new to the daypart. Both O’Brien and Letterman toiled at 12:35 for more than a decade before moving up to the prime slot.

But there aren’t many experienced talk show hosts out there — and as the late night graveyard has shown through the years, these shows aren’t easy to pull off.

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