Trumpeted triumphs come with an asterisk

Quarterly and monthly ratings represent an arbitrary benchmark, allowing us to monitor programs or channels that otherwise go by without much notice. It’s an opportunity to check in on the morning shows, say, or for smaller cable networks to tout their “explosive” growth — often the statistical equivalent of improving from six regular viewers to seven.

The end of June, however, produced a rare flurry of pre-Fourth of July fireworks in latenight, triggering lofty “We’re beating them” claims that surely sent sleepy research departments into a tizzy. And because consumer outlets are so ill-equipped to track ratings in a daypart where every shift comes with more asterisks than baseball’s steroid-tainted home-run records, it seems only fair to try and help wade through the clutter.

Among the news releases, Comedy Central boasted “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” had beaten “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in younger demos — a first for a cable show — while E! crowed about “Chelsea Lately,” hosted by Chelsea Handler, inching ahead of TBS’ Conan O’Brien in June. (This would seem to endorse at least the title of Handler’s book, implying vodka impairs judgment.)

All these comparisons, as NBC pointed out, come with an apples-and-oranges disclaimer. For starters, with each passing minute every program in the latenight space loses potential audience to the No. 1 alternative — namely, sleep. So as homes using TV (or HUT) levels drop, comparisons of half-hour to hour programs — or in the case of Stewart and Leno, shows that begin at 11 p.m. versus those that begin at 11:35 — become especially problematic and potentially bogus.

Obviously, research departments know this, but their PR brethren can’t resist pulling a fast one. And they understand a simple truth: For a Web-dominated media culture — one in which everything seems to be cloaked in political terminology — distilling a story down to a horse race, as in “Conan vs. Chelsea” or “Leno vs. Stewart,” is a concept anybody can grasp.

In this case, a variation on an old adage comes to mind: Cleverly calibrated spin can truly circle the globe before nuanced analysis can get its pants on.

Are there are any legitimate conclusions to be drawn from the second-quarter ratings? A few.

Half-hours like “Chelsea Lately” and “Nightline” are holding their own as alternatives to the male-dominated latenight comedy club. Stewart is doing very well, and the audience for Leno and David Letterman continues to skew older than the daypart’s traditional young-male emphasis.

O’Brien, meanwhile, has not been a game-changer, reflecting the challenge of squeezing into an already-crowded field. And Jimmy Kimmel’s gains — delivering the show’s “most-watched quarter” since 2007, per ABC — can be attributed to the early midnight start time he won back in February.

Moreover, any dry dissection of ratings spin ignores several key intangibles, chief among them that Stewart’s is now latenight’s loudest — and certainly most influential — voice. Once, Johnny Carson’s even-handed approach gently tucked viewers into bed, and Leno has sought to retain that mantle, jabbing at the left and right with equal gusto, naughty but studiously nonpartisan.

Yet these are not those genteel times, and it’s Stewart who articulates a viewpoint that consistently echoes beyond latenight’s limited confines — as evidenced by how he ripples through the mediasphere, and more recently by Fox News Channel’s thin-skinned retaliation against the comedic barbs directed its way.

Beyond that, head-to-head contests — other than Jay vs. Dave, which has more to do with history than anything else — are silly. Latenight is simply no longer a zero-sum game, as much as we might like to reduce it to those facile terms.

It’s also worth noting the gaps cited as “victories” as measured by Nielsen can easily be dismissed as statistical rounding errors. Even if you buy Comedy Central’s release, “The Daily Show” edged Leno among adults 18-49 by 30,000 viewers — or .02% of the available pool in that age bracket.

Of course, none of this will prevent media outlets from pouncing on the pugilistic aspects of latenight, even if such discussions have all the real-world significance of barroom debates about whether Mike Tyson could have beaten Muhammad Ali in his prime.

It’s interesting, sure. But it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

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