True or False?

1. Leno (Tonight Show) has had higher ratings than Letterman (Late Night) most weeks since his return to the Tonight Show in March

2. Leno’s June 2010 ratings are higher as compared to Conan O’Brien’s ratings in June 2009

3. Tonight Show ratings in the 2nd quarter of 2010 are equal to the second quarter of 2009


1. True

2. False

3. False

Strange times in late night. For those of you who were hiding under a rock, here is the quickie late night backgrounder:

Five years in advance, NBC decided in 2004 that Jay Leno would “retire” from the Tonight Show in 2009 and that Conan O’Brien would replace him. NBC got cold feet in 2009 and instead of letting Leno go, decided to create a 10pm primetime show for him. They figured it would be less costly primetime fare (Prime was a real problem for them), and it kept Leno from competing with NBC. However, he did poorly at 10pm and Conan didn’t set the world on fire on the Tonight Show.  It is now irrelevant that many of Conan’s problems were caused by NBC's strategy of creating a weak 10pm Leno show, which in turn depressed the late news creating a weak lead-in for Conan.

So NBC canned Conan (who will reappear for a one hour Monday-Thursday program at 11pm on TBS beginning November 8th) and triumphantly brought Leno back to the Tonight Show on March 2, after the conclusion of the Olympics. As expected, Leno’s numbers were immediately strong upon his return, but sagged quickly.

So back to our quiz.

 1. Yes, Leno is beating Letterman most weeks, though the margin of victory is smaller than before he departed.

2. No, compared to Conan’s “intro weeks” in June 2009, Conan did better numbers than Leno has achieved in the comparable period. That may reverse itself over time, but still has to be a disappointment for NBC.

3. The Tonight Show 2nd quarter 2010 viewers have declined by 20% compared to 2009, and 31% in A18-49 viewers. Ugh. The Tonight Show has fallen to a 1.1 A18-49 rating, the lowest ever.  

The reality is that late night TV, much like the old gray mare, “ain’t what she used to be”. The Tonight Show and Late Night are just two of a plethora of late night choices. In fact ABC’s Nightline is now the highest rated 11:30 show. What complicates the issue for NBC is that Leno is a very expensive asset at a reported $30MM annual salary. Maybe NBC had the right strategy all along in 2004, but having unwound their original plan, they now need for Leno to regain his previous ratings, not just beat Letterman. Beating Letterman merely provides a conceptual victory, but weak ratings provide lesser revenues. And it’ll get even more interesting in November when Conan reappears.