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TV no longer a zero-sum game

Multiple shows can rate well in the same timeslot

Now that he has a new latenight home, can Conan O’Brien exact vengeance against Jay Leno and NBC?

Not quite.

The temptation will be to cast O’Brien’s return this fall fronting a TBS talkshow in pugilistic terms. Indeed, the knee-jerk response in many quarters was to begin casting about for “who (possibly) wins and loses,” as Time’s James Poniewozik put it after the announcement.

But the less simplistic truth is that O’Brien’s audience and Leno’s can happily coexist. Based on audience profile and scheduling, O’Brien is actually more likely to compete with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, or TBS’ sister Cartoon Network and its raunchy Adult Swim animation block. And they’ll probably be just fine, too.

So who will O’Brien hurt? That’s an antiquated way of looking at things — reflecting a desire to reduce news stories to black-and-white snapshots and programming decisions to some kind of direct, easy-to-digest confrontation. After all, that’s how it was when we could speculate about who would win when Fox placed “The Simpsons” opposite “The Cosby Show,” or “Frasier” went up against “Home Improvement.” Back then, each seismic scheduling shift was the next installment of Ali vs. Frazier — a kind of Thrilla in Sitcomvilla.

Television, however, no longer represents a clear-cut world of zero-sum games, where networks duke it out for a preordained pool of viewers in the same timeslot. Although there are obviously limitations on people’s time, their capacity to watch what they want, when they want has complicated TV’s math to a near-infinite assortment of possibilities beyond simple either-or equations.

Take O’Brien’s planned show as a case in point. A significant portion of those with access to the program — anybody who gets TV via a satellite dish in the Pacific or Mountain time zones — will be able to watch hours before Leno or Letterman take the broadcast stage. Scheduling conflict solved.

As for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” that tandem will air directly opposite O’Brien — at least, in their primary telecasts. But Comedy Central helpfully repeats each half-hour four times a day, meaning one needn’t possess one of Poniewozik’s so-called “winners” in this showdown — “the makers of dual-tuner DVRs” — to patronize both channels.

The relatively small audience for any of the latenight entries, moreover, leaves a vast swath of viewers uncommitted to one show or another. Notably, Leno’s latenight return saw him reclaim much of his audience (and his top-rated title) without taking a major bite out of Letterman or “Nightline.” The real choice for many boils down not so much to Jay vs. Dave, but rather staying up vs. going to bed.

Even where the available audience is larger — namely, primetime — fragmentation and technology have altered the way people consume TV, and thus competitive considerations.

Look no further than the network upfront presentations, which will reconvene in May. In recent years, broadcasters have largely eradicated the chess-match aspects of scheduling as they unveil their lineups, as in “Our queen, ‘American Idol,’ takes their pawn, ‘Cougar Town.’?”

CBS — the oldest-school network — held on the longest to detailing the strategic rationale behind what goes where and audience flow from one program into the next, and even the Eye web has cut back on such windy explanations.

While viewers once faced tough choices about what to watch, DVRs, encore airings, on-demand and downloaded episodes spare them from such sacrifices. Small wonder Nielsen data shows that almost 7 million people regularly time-shift the hits “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Office” and “CSI” — which all air at the same time Thursday — viewing them some time over the next seven days.

Similarly, ABC’s “Lost” experienced only modest ill effects when Fox’s “Glee” successfully invaded its timeslot. When the final DVR tally comes in, it’s a good bet that a lot of people will have watched both.

It is not enough to succeed,” Gore Vidal once said. “Others must fail.”

In narrative terms, that scenario is certainly more exciting. Yet as O’Brien and his ardent loyalists will discover, in TV, achieving the first part can no longer be counted upon to bring about the latter.

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