O'Brien's ratings may have contributed to cancellation

TBS’ cancellation Wednesday of latenight series “Lopez Tonight” has also put the spotlight on the ratings performance of its lead-in, “Conan.”

The latenighter hosted by comedian George Lopez will end its run on the cabler with today’s installment. The network had been considering pulling the plug on the Telepictures Prods. series as early as May (Daily Variety, May 25).

But the ratings declines “Lopez” experienced at midnight are roughly on par with what Conan O’Brien has seen since his jump to TBS last November, raising the question of whether Lopez’s show became a casualty of TBS’ big bet on O’Brien.

In an interview, Turner Entertainment Networks prexy Steve Koonin told Variety he is “ecstatic” with the performance of “Conan” and that the decision to drop “Lopez” was a cost consideration.

“It just wasn’t doing what I needed it to be doing to justify the investment,” he said.

“Lopez” had been fading in the ratings since moving back an hour to accommodate “Conan” at 11 p.m., dropping 40% among total viewers from the second season to date as compared with its first season. Some decline in viewership was expected given the level of homes using televisions (HUT) is lower at midnight.

What may not have been expected is how “Conan” has been falling since its heavily promoted debut.

For the year to date, “Conan” has faced declines across all demos. The total viewer drop from the first quarter of the year, when “Conan” averaged 1.23 million in total viewers, and 623,000 in his target demographic of 18-34, are both down about 30%, compared with the third quarter to date. However, those numbers also factor in a two-week hiatus O’Brien took in July when the program was in reruns.

There’s a case to be made that “Lopez’s” drop is largely driven by “Conan’s” declines, because his retention of the “Conan” audience has held relatively steady. In the 18-49 adult demo, for instance, “Lopez” has bounced around between a retention level of 38%-44%, and is even higher in the quarter to date than when “Conan” first bowed.

Both series have been declining at roughly the same rate, with “Lopez” registering the same 30% declines across demos that “Conan” has faced. The rate of decline does intensify for “Lopez” among viewers 18-34, with “Lopez” down 40% to “Conan’s” 32%.

Koonin notes there are more measures to take into account besides the raw ratings. The average age of a “Conan” viewer is 32, 10 years younger than Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and 20 years younger than ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” He also performs well on delayed DVR viewing, where a full week’s playback added 20% in July, and is a bona fide force online, which Turner ad sales tacks on to every “Conan” airtime buy.

“I am ecstatic with ‘Conan,’” said Koonin. “The ad community is in love with the show.”

Comedy Central’s latenight combo of “Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” has been widening its lead over “Conan” across demos. While the satirical duo was doing 14% better than “Conan” in the first quarter among viewers 18-49, that gap became 52% in the second quarter and 55% in the quarter to date. Even E!’s “Chelsea Lately” is giving “Conan” competition, having topped the show across all demos in June, though year to date “Chelsea” has fallen behind “Conan” in the 18-34 demo.

Koonin admits there’s room for improvement. “Do we want to build more audience? Of course we do, and we will grow a bigger audience over time,” said Koonin. “Comedy Central had a 15-year head start.”

As for Lopez, Koonin explained the cancellation was triggered by a looming deadline on an option TBS had to pick up that would have committed the network to another season at the same salary levels for Lopez and others involved with the show. TBS had signaled to Lopez, Telepictures and others involved in the show at high levels back in May that a third season was in doubt.

Though Koonin wouldn’t specify how much “Lopez” cost TBS to produce, he did note it was an expensive program considering that it had all the frills of a broadcast late-night program.

But Koonin hasn’t ruled out taking another stab at an original talk show at midnight, adding that O’Brien will stay put at 11 p.m. “We might in the future give it another try,” he said.

The cancellation marks an end to the delicate dance TBS had to perform in April 2010 when it made the decision to bring O’Brien to its latenight lineup. Sensitive about being perceived as the cause of a disruption similar to the one he weathered at NBC, O’Brien signed on with TBS only when Lopez reached out and welcomed him to the network. Lopez broke the news of the cancellation to his staff Wednesday morning before the network made it official.

Reruns of “Lopez Tonight” will air over the next few weeks, eventually to be replaced by syndicated episodes of “The Office.”

“Lopez” began in November 2009 as TBS’ first attempt to fill its latenight slot with original programming. Lopez, best known for starring in the ABC sitcom “The George Lopez Show,” was the first Hispanic-American to headline a U.S. talkshow.

National Hispanic Media Coalition CEO Alex Nogales lamented TBS’ decision.

“Although we understand that low ratings may motivate this type of business decision, it is nonetheless a significant loss for the Latino audience,” he said.

The network issued a statement wishing Lopez well: “TBS has valued its partnership with George and appreciates all of his work on behalf of the network, both on and off the air.”

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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