Tuned In

Dave & Conan: Who's #1? Depends Who Counts

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As Bill Carter reports at the New York Times, one side effect of Michael Jackson’s death has been a big jump in Nightline’s ratings, which seemed to come largely from Conan O’Brien. The night of Jackson’s memorial, The Tonight Show got about two million fewer viewers than Nightline, and a million less than Late Show With David Letterman.

This may have been a breaking-news anomaly, but late-night has seemed to have settled into a pattern: Conan has shed overall viewers, with Dave beating him many nights. But Conan has gotten many more viewers in the more-lucrative 18-to-49 demographic—his average viewer age dropped nearly a decade from Leno’s—making his show more potentially lucrative. Some nights, both networks can claim the number-one show on some measures. 

There’s a bigger issue here: what constitutes “winning” in TV? And do some viewers matter more than others? 

The fact that advertisers pay more for 18-to-49 audiences irritates a lot of people. Say, those who are not 18-to-49. It is not fair; many people in TV (and even some in advertising) think it is no longer wise. It is based in a number of factors and beliefs: one, that older people watch more TV (and thus can be reached on cheaper shows, so there’s no premium for delivering them), and another, the theory that younger people are less brand-loyal. 

All debatable, but it still is what it is. (Ages ago, I wrote a primer column on why advertisers chase young people, and it largely still holds true.) And as audiences become smaller, and fragmentation and other media make younger people even more ad-elusive, in a way the pressures are even greater. 

It may sound cynical, but I think NBC’s justified enough to claim a “win” by dominating the category that yields the most money. Look, TV is a business. The aim therein is not to get the most viewers as an end in itself. It is to make the greatest profit. Maybe you do that by getting the most viewers (like American Idol). Maybe you do it by getting the most remunerative audience (like The Office). Maybe you do it by cutting costs (as NBC plans with Jay at 10 p.m.).

There’s no extra moral prize for reaching the greatest mass of people. If NBC and CBS are both competing to wring the most greenbacks out of the slot, whichever one succeeds at that wins. If advertisers some day start paying more for older viewers, then guess what? The game will change. 

But when those of us not in the TV biz—critics, or anyone else—call someone “number one,” it does seem to confer a value judgment, to say that they won what was worth winning. So who do we call number one in late night, if Dave gets the most fans and Conan the choicest ones?  

For me, if forced, I’d say Dave; the networks’ yardstick does not have to be mine, and simplest to say that the guy who gets the most eyeballs has the greatest reach and influence.

But it also shows how silly declaring “number one” at all is. That’s NBC and CBS’s war, not mine. I like Dave; I like Conan. Right now I somewhat prefer to watch Conan, but I’d gladly switch between the two. It may be that we will for some time have two network-proclaimed kings of late night. I guess mine will be whoever I’m watching at the time.

Which will likely be Stephen Colbert.