By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
So it looks like there’ll be dueling press releases throughout the summer in the Conan O’Brien versus David Letterman battle for late-night supremacy. There’s good and bad news for CBS and NBC. It’s clear right now that Dave’s Late Show is topping Conan’s Tonight Show in audience size.
This is the first time Dave has done this to The Tonight Show over a full week of original broadcasts since 2005, and that has to worry NBC Universal Jeff Zucker, whose decision it was to rotate out Leno and rotate in Conan. Especially since these are probably the last weeks that late-night addicts are sampling O’Brien before settling into a viewing routine.
It’s the nightmare scenario for GE/NBC Universal that everyone but boss Jeff Zucker thought would happen: The network’s cash cow, The Tonight Show, once safely No. 1 in the ratings with Jay Leno as host, now can only hope to seesaw in the ratings against Letterman’s Late Show. And it’s all Zucker’s fault.
You’d think that NBC would be in a flop-sweat over O’Brien’s ratings slide during his first and second weeks as host of The Tonight Show. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. By now, most network suits would be spending every minute of every hour of every day brainstorming about how to make the show more popular. But this is NBC, where, when the going gets rough, the executives go golfing. That’s right, Conan’s longtime executive producer Jeff Ross got his money’s worth out of his spankin’ new membership at Riviera Country Club, even after Conan’s ratings began to fall.
On the other hand, Conan is delivering better demographics — about 11 years younger in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 age category. But CBS noted that Dave was beginning to “narrow the gap”— as Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson was over Jimmy Fallon, who’s also winning those coveted demos. Of course, this is important info, more so than the number of households watching. Then again, that’s NBC’s mantra: We don’t need eyeballs as long as we have key demos. Actually, both count.
Nevertheless, Conan has blown his big first few days’ lead. But that’s not stopping NBC from gushing. Conan is now garnering the smallest audience for The Tonight Show ever — well, at least since the advent of Nielsen people meters for the show in 1987. Sure, the NBC Universal chairman can run to The New York Times boasting about Conan’s “win” in late-night because he has a younger audience. But that doesn’t make it so. Which is why Craig Ferguson, who works for Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, which owns both of CBS’ late-night shows, took the piss out of an NBC press release yesterday that declared Conan the “King of Late Night TV” by claiming the title for himself: “I put out a press release saying I was the new King Of Late Night. What constitutes royalty in late-night television? Saying you are!”
But Madison Avenue knows full well that if they want younger audiences with fewer eyeballs, they can buy ads on cable, which is a hell of a lot cheaper than prime time. There’s more bad news: The advertising trade press has reported that ad buyers are balking at paying prime-time prices for late-night ratings this fall, when Jay Leno starts his show. Sure, Zucker and his minions keep repeating the mantra that it doesn’t matter if Leno’s new show gets whipped by scripted dramas because “we’re managing for margins, not ratings.” Translation: Programming Leno will be cheaper to produce than programming Southland. That argument isn’t cutting it with Madison Avenue.
So what is Ben Silverman’s supposedly “creative” solution to appease advertisers who don’t want to pay prime-time rates for late-night ratings? He recently told Ad Age, “the network would consider offering the opportunity to have Mr. Leno do live commercials, which he suggested would potentially be worth a price increase.”
Uh, did anyone at NBC even bother to tell Leno he may become a 10 p.m. pitchman in September? A throwback holding up cans of Campbell’s Chunky Soup and bags of Purina Dog Chow while telling viewers how much he likes the products? How humiliating for Jay. He should have taken ABC up on that offer to compete with both Dave and Conan.
One thing is certain: Gone is Conan’s all-too-brief honeymoon with the press and viewers. Not even NBCU’s PR War Room set up by Zucker will be able to spin this disaster. (He recently switched lieutenants, bringing in his trusted NBC News flack Allison Gollust to manhandle pesky reporters like me.) In the old days of network TV, a top executive who made such horrendous mistakes as Zucker would not even wait to be fired: He’d have the class to offer his immediate resignation. But nothing seems to shame Jeff. Though many have tried.