‘Tonight Show’ tops in ratings race

Leno still the latenight leader over Letterman

Writers or no writers, Jay Leno is still TV’s latenight leader.

In its first three nights back on the air last week, NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” easily beat CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” in all key categories, according to final Nielsen data released Thursday. “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” whose host is also operating sans scribes, topped the WGA-blessed “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.”

Winning perfs by the NBC shows disproved predictions that the Peacock skeins would be put at a serious ratings disadvantage since their CBS counterparts are operating with their full writing staffs and don’t have to worry about SAG members refusing to cross picket lines.

Latenight twist isn’t the only sign that the major TV networks are managing to survive without scribes –at least for now.

While it’s far too early to draw definitive conclusions, ABC and NBC execs have been pleasantly surprised by the strong ratings for their crop of January reality skeins. In some cases, the reality shows are doing as well as or better than the scripted shows they’ve replaced.

The Alphabet’s Wednesday lineup hasn’t skipped a beat despite losing frosh success stories “Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money.”

“Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” this week did about the same numbers as “Daisies” and “Practice” earned when they were in originals, with “Supernanny” beating a new-to-NBC episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” What’s more, the shows cost about one-quarter to one-third as much as their scripted counterparts — and, as one network partisan noted, they repeat well.

On Mondays, ABC is doing better with newcomer “Dance War” than it did with scripted programming a year ago.

NBC has gotten off to a stronger start this winter with a slew of nonscripted shows. “American Gladiators,” “The Biggest Loser” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” are all outperforming NBC’s average for scripted shows and has given the Peacock an outside chance to finish in second place for the season.

CBS hasn’t unleashed any new reality skeins yet, but the net is praying the first regular season edition of summer hit “Big Brother” can help make up for the lack of scripted originals.

Fox, meanwhile, is about to head into ratings orbit with next week’s arrival of “American Idol.” Execs there are also confidently predicting big things for new “Jerry Springer”-esque quizzer “Moment of Truth.”

With no end in sight for the strike, nets are said to be readying more greenlights for reality shows as well as scripted shows and formats imported from overseas. Announcements on additional strike contingency programs are likely to come later this month, insiders said.

The real question is whether these boffo early numbers for nonscripted shows can be maintained.

In a few months, nets will virtually run out of all original scripted programming, which means reality shows could begin cannibalizing each other — or that viewers will get sick of all reality, all the time.

But if nets discover they can do well with mostly nonscripted skeds, some execs predict it will lead to fewer hours of scripted shows when the strike is over.

“Why should we pay these premium license fees when we can put on a greater mix of reality and do just as well?” one exec asked. “We have very tight budgets, and reality has already proven it can step up.”

Exec is quick to note that network programmers “will still fight for all the scripted programming we can get.” After all, advertisers pay a higher premium for scripted hits, and networks’ sister studios still depend on foreign and syndie revenues from scripted skeins.

“These shows will never be as lucrative as hits like ‘House’ or ‘CSI’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ” one insider said. “But they’re certainly a viable alternative for the majority of scripted shows that are in the 3.5-4 demo range.”

If reality proves to be a potent strike contingency, however, it’s almost certain that the major congloms that own the nets will increase pressure on programming execs to pump up their reality output.

As for the latenight race, for the holiday-shortened week, “Tonight” averaged a 1.7/7 share among adults 18-49, while “Late Show” notched a 1.4/5. At 12:35 a.m., O’Brien averaged a 1.0/5 to Ferguson’s 0.6/3.

Curiosity over how the NBC skeins would perform without writers — and a two-month drought of originals — helped give both Peacock gabbers their best total viewer numbers since February 2007. Leno finished 22% ahead of Letterman, while O’Brien outpaced Ferguson by 62%.

The NBC shows, however, were down among adults 18-49 vs. the same week last year: Leno by 15%, O’Brien by 9%. That continues a pattern of ratings erosion for the Peacock shows that existed before the strike.

According to people close to the Letterman camp, one reason Leno may not have taken a hit is that his strike shows haven’t been much different than his pre-strike shows. Leno has chosen to write his own monologue, making the first part of his show the same as it ever was.

Still, Letterman has had an advantage with guests, attracting the likes of Tom Hanks, Robin Williams and Howard Stern. Leno’s biggest name last week was GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

NBC’s primetime lineup has also been hot during the first few days of the new year, giving Leno a lead-in bump over Letterman.

While final numbers won’t be in until next week, for the first three days of this week, the Peacock shows have maintained their ratings leads over CBS’ latenight gabbers.

Over at ABC, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” notched a 0.6 rating/3 share, matching its season-to-date average. Despite plenty of big political news, “Nightline” earned a 1.0/4 — a bit below its 1.1/4 seasonal average.