At times, the dueling spin coming from networks begins to approach the level of alternative realities — a bit like flipping back and forth between MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, or scanning the lead items on the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post.
So it is with the David Letterman-Conan O’Brien derby, where NBC is frantically touting “The Tonight Show’s” younger demos while CBS crows about Letterman drawing a larger audience than his latenight counterpart for the first time in more than three years.
The most interesting figure being pushed by NBC is the median age of the audience — namely, that O’Brien’s viewers clock in at just under 46 by that measure, while Letterman’s posse perhaps not unexpectedly skews significantly older, at 57. That’s reasonably close to the age gap between the two hosts.
That means that the O’Brien audience is more attractive to media buyers chasing younger men, but also that the older contingent that had been watching Jay Leno has pretty quickly abandoned him — as evidenced by the just-released total audience figures for the week of June 15-19: “Late Show With David Letterman,” 3.5 million; “The Tonight Show,” 3.3 million. Even with a clear boost for Letterman thanks to the fabricated, media-stoked flap involving Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, that’s a fairly steep decline for O’Brien from “Tonight’s” overall average under Leno.
The truth is latenight is no longer a zero-sum game given all the options that are available, so both shows can thrive in slightly different quadrants. Yet NBC has been perhaps understandably fierce about proclaiming O’Brien the “new king of latenight” and madly spinning to reinforce that impression. (See my earlier column on this.)
The real mistake would be reading a shift as a failure somehow on O’Brien’s part. If anything, both shows are doing a pretty good job of defying gravity, given how mediocre the primetime ratings for the major networks have been since Memorial Day.
Meanwhile, the ratings breakdown of the two programs puts the consumer press, in particular, in an awkward spot: In terms of cultural sway, total viewers is the obvious number to go by, as well as the easiest for lay people to understand, as in “X million people watched.” From a business perspective, though, staying ahead among younger demos is significant. So at this point, who wins the war of spinning the referees, as it were, is far from an inconsequential point.
So you be the judge. Here are a few key passages from the respective releases.
CONAN HAS INCREASED ‘TONIGHT’S’ DEMO DOMINANCE, WINNING THE WEEK BY A 67 PERCENT
MARGIN OVER ‘LATE SHOW,’ UP FROM A 53 PERCENT WIN LAST YEAR AND A 34 PERCENT
LEAD EARLIER THIS SEASON
CONAN DELIVERS DECISIVE DEMO MARGINS OVER ALL
BROADCAST AND CABLE COMPETITION FOR THE WEEK
CONAN’S AUDIENCE IS 11
YEARS YOUNGER THAN ‘LATE SHOW’S,’ AND CONAN IS EVEN YOUNGER THAN HE WAS ON ‘LATE
NIGHT’ FOR THE SAME WEEK LAST YEAR
The median age of Conan’s audience last week was 45.8, more than 11 years
younger than Letterman’s 57.0. Conan is also younger than he was a year ago on
“Late Night,” where the median age of his audience for this same week one year
ago was 48.5.
In the younger half of the key 18-49 demographic, adults 18-34, Conan won the
week by a towering 164 percent margin (930,000 adults 18-34 vs. “Late Show’s”
352,000), up from 103 percent for the same week last year and up from 50 percent
for “Tonight” this season through the end of May.
Meanwhile, from CBS’ press department, a more straightforward assertion — and a “first time since 2005” breakthrough, which ought to command tomorrow’s headlines:
“LATE SHOW” BEATS “THE TONIGHT SHOW”
“Late Show with David Letterman” Tops “The Tonight Show”
Among Viewers in a Full Week of Original Broadcasts for the
First Time Since 2005
“Late Show” Continues To Narrow the Gap in Adults 18-49
“The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” Closes the Gap
with “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”
CBS’s LATE SHOW with DAVID LETTERMAN
beat “The Tonight Show” in viewers for the first time in a full week of original
broadcasts since December 2005, according to Nielsen live plus same day ratings
for the week ending June 19, the third week since Conan O’Brien took over
as host of “The Tonight Show.”
LATE SHOW with DAVID LETTERMAN delivered a 2.5/06 in
households with an average of 3.46m viewers, up +14% in households (from 2.2/06)
and +13% in viewers (from 3.05m) compared to the same week last year.
LATE SHOW beat “The Tonight Show” in households (2.5/06
vs. 2.3/06, +9%) and viewers (3.46m vs. 3.32m, +4%). LATE SHOW beat “The
Tonight Show” in viewers against an all-first run week of “Tonight Show”
broadcasts for the first time since the week ending December 2, 2005 (the week
Oprah Winfrey appeared on LATE SHOW).