Reading the spin the last couple days in response to the second-quarter latenight ratings has certainly been enlightening, often telling you more about the media outlets involved than the Nielsen tallies.
Jay Leno is first in latenight again, after his departure and return. The numbers are down, yes, but David Letterman — despite being in a better competitive position — is once again staring up at “The Tonight Show.”
You can have all kinds of fun with year-to-year comparisons, but the bottom line is that Leno’s return to the top would seem to justify NBC’s decision to put him back there — especially if the network can get any traction with its new 10 p.m. shows in the fall, admittedly a big “if.”
As for Letterman, having Leno drawing more viewers (and my guess is Dave doesn’t obsess over parsing demos) has to stick in his craw big-time. Nor do I suspect Letterman gives a rat’s ass about the marginal gains by “Nightline” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” To the hosts who once jockeyed for Johnny’s chair, this is still strictly a two-horse race.
Of course, it’s actually not, which is why applying old standards to latenight seems pointless. Between Adult Swim, Comedy Central and Conan O’Brien’s coming arrival on TBS, the time period is continuing to fragment — like everything else on TV. And as Fox Entertainment prez Kevin Reilly recently noted, that means O’Brien is likely to deliver less than a 1 rating among adults 18-49. The next step will be everyone arguing over whose 0.8 rating is more attractive to advertisers.
What the second-quarter numbers would seem to put to rest is the assertion that Leno would be “damaged goods” after his ill-fated foray into primetime. That was a media construct, not the way people think when they sit down to watch TV.
And for now, anyway, even with a slightly tarnished crown, Leno is once again the king.