As Dave Catches Jay, Are the Late Night Wars Over?
The Tonight Show
Remember the late night wars? Now that there are so many choices on TV — even in the bedtime hours — the idea of Jay vs. Dave seems quaint.
That was all the more apparent this November, as the battle between the two late night titans came to a draw. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (3.6 million) still held a slight edge over Late Show With David Letterman (3.4 million) in viewers. But for the first time since 1994, Letterman (with a 0.9 rating) managed to beat Leno (0.8 rating) in the adults 18-49 demo.
"It's great, and I think a lot of the credit goes to CBS," Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett says of Letterman's victory. "CBS has been really successful in primetime."
Leno has been hurt by NBC's weak primetime ratings. Plus, not all of Leno's audience returned when he moved back to the Tonight Show last year in the wake of the Peacock network's late night debacle (and his ill-fated 10 p.m. show). "When Jay was at 10, NBC wasn't developing primetime shows at 10," one insider notes.
As Leno lost a chunk of viewers, Letterman has simply managed to remain steady with his loyal audience. That has brought parity between the two competitors. "Late Show numbers have been stable over the past couple of years," Burnett says. "In today's world that's a home run."
For all intents and purposes, the November sweeps results may have been the surest sign yet that the nearly two-decade battle between TV's talk show superpowers is pretty much over. Both shows aren't cannibalizing each other anymore; instead, they're being attacked from the outside — by a resurgent Nightline and an increasingly crowded late-night cable battleground, which has stripped younger viewers away from the broadcast networks.
"The genre will be attacked," says one late night insider. "It has already changed. If you go back in time, there was a time when a comedian did Johnny Carson or David Letterman and they became famous overnight. Those days are over. The cultural relevance of talk shows, the mantle that Carson and Letterman held and hold, that will be hard to maintain in the future simply because there are so many channels and choices. In the old days, everyone funneled in, you watched Johnny and Dave and the next day people were talking about it."
Bravo just announced that its Andy Cohen-hosted Watch What Happens Live will become a five-night-a-week series, joining a cable field that includes Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, TBS' Conan O'Brien and E!'s Chelsea Handler. Then there's Adult Swim, Cartoon Network's block that frequently beats everyone — including Leno and Letterman — among adults 18-49.
But the biggest change impacting late night is DVR playback, according to CBS research chief David Poltrack. Poltrack says DVR usage at 11:30 p.m. would collectively rate a 3.0 in adults 18-49, nearly doubling what Leno and Letterman rate combined. "It makes for some interesting dynamics," he says.
Adds one insider: "Now you're competing against shows like CSI, and [talk shows] are not really meant to do that."
Late night talk shows won't go away, however — they're valuable as cheap and easy ways to get into original programming, particularly on cable. "This is the strange paradox of talk shows," one exec says. "All the choices and recorded programming is attacking late night viciously, and yet all these channels need programming. Talk shows are still and will remain relatively inexpensive to produce. But the future of these talk shows is less and less production. They will be smaller shows — a single host interviewing guests, not a lot of production or cost."
Meanwhile, as Letterman celebrates his edge over Leno for the first time in 17 years, attention will soon center on whether the host is truly ready to retire. We'll likely find out next year whether rumors that he plans to depart in 2013, when Letterman will be the same age as Johnny Carson when he retired, hold true.
Letterman and CBS remain mum on what the future will bring. For now, Letterman appears to still be having fun on air, particularly as another presidential campaign approaches. "Any time there's something in the news, people want to see what Dave has to say about it," Burnett says. "Elections guarantee you a certain amount of topical material. And the strength of Late Show is Dave's point of view on a given topic. Anyone who is serious about becoming president of the United States I believe needs to sit down across from Dave."
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