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Conan Night One Beats Networks, By Stealing Their Young

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The ratings are in for the first night of Conan on TBS, and Conan O’Brien has plenty to be happy about.

The big headline everywhere will probably be “Conan Beats Jay”—and yeah, I could not resist a variation on that here—but that’s probably not a big deal in the long run. Yes, Conan got 4.2 million viewers, to 3.5 for Jay Leno and 3.4 million for David Letterman. And that’s fine, great for basic cable, but the first night of a heavily promoted late-night show is almost always going to do well, and will fall off accordingly. (Remember Jay Leno’s Kanye-fueled debut in primetime?) I would not bet on Conan to continue to beat Jay and Dave in absolute viewers. (He also pretty handily beat Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, unsurprisingly; again, we’ll see where that goes.)

What might matter more—much more, if it holds up—is where and how Conan did well.

Conan beat Jay and Dave in overall viewers, but in viewers aged 18 to 49—those, like it or not, who largely determine where ad dollars go—he obliterated them. Conan got 3.3 million in this group, to Dave’s 1.3 million and just under a million for Jay. Compare viewers 18 to 34 and the difference is almost laughable: 2.45 million for Conan, 364 thousand and 350 thousand for Dave and Jay respectively.*

*Update: To be fair, Conan’s 11-midnight show overlaps only the first half hour of Jay and Dave. But still.

And Conan’s average viewer age was 30. 30! Jay and Dave’s average audience age was recently measured at 56 and 54. Basically, Conan is getting their viewers’ kids. Their younger kids. I wouldn’t focus much on the overall viewer numbers, which will settle, but if the demographic pattern holds, that could be trouble for the big-network shows going ahead.

The bigger point of concern for Jay here, if the pattern holds up—big if!—is that Conan would seem to have hit him stronger in the advertising demo than he did Dave, as Jay and Dave have been running fairly close lately in viewers 18 to 49. Again, one night does not a pattern make, but that is the figure I’d be looking at if I were at NBC.

Oh, and to anticipate the complaint: I’m not saying TV and advertisers’ focus on young viewers is fair or logical. (I’m well over 30 myself.) But it exists, and it is the basis on which money is made and shows stay on the air. As Jay Leno has often said, it’s all about whether you make your numbers. And it’s also about which numbers you make.

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