At the TV critics press tour earlier this month, NBC walked back its quick declaration of Conan O’Brien as “The New King of Late Night.” And you can see why. Last week, David Letterman beat Conan O’Brien in total viewers. Wait, let me elaborate: a week of Letterman reruns beat a week of O’Brien originals.
NBC will argue, and not incorrectly, that O’Brien won viewers in every group below 55, which is where the battle for ad money is fought. And late night is a marathon, Jay was in second place for two years, yada yada yada. But NBC cannot possibly like these trend lines. And the big question looming over this battle, as well as over much of the rest of primetime TV, is: how will the new Jay Leno Show affect it when it shows up on Sept. 14?
A lot of the focus has been on simple ratings. NBC has scheduled Jay largely as a cost-cutting measure, so if he gets a lower rating than its drama originals did, it still comes out ahead on the books. But that’s just for that hour. A weaker Jay lead-in could mean weaker 11 p.m. news ratings, which could in turn mean even weaker ratings for Conan.
But the raw rating is just one factor. (Jay competing with Conan for bookings is another, but it probably has more to do with pride and bragging rights than with actual ratings.) The big question may be compatibility. If the Jay-to-Conan handoff has taught us anything, it’s that Jay’s audience is not Conan’s. Even if Jay does well, how many of his viewers will be people (not exclusively, but largely, older people, as the Conan numbers suggest) delighted to watch him precisely because he is not Conan? To the extent that his lead-in matters, it helps only if it’s also a compatible lead-in.
I have to wonder if that’s one reason why The Jay Leno Show is actively staffing up with a stable of much younger comedy “correspondents” (including the just-announced Liz Feldman): to try to get more young viewers inside Jay’s big tent. Perhaps, too, that’s why Jay made an edgy (and funny, in a surprisingly Conan-esque way) trailer involving him abducting a cop to cover up a traffic accident, which has been running in theaters before movies like District 9.
Of course Leno is also keeping features like Jaywalking and Headlines (and giving them the prime slot at the end of the show leading into the news), which play much more to his longtime fans. No one’s seen the Jay Leno Show yet, so we’ll have to see what its mix of comedy really is. But it will be interesting to see how hard his show tries to build cred with young viewers—and whether that can do Conan any good.