The New York Times’ TV Decoder blog has last night’s late-night ratings, and for one night anyway, it looks as if David Letterman would have been better off making a deal for his writers not to come back. Jay Leno beat him in the ratings, 5.8 million to 4.7 million viewers, and increased his average viewership 47 percent to Letterman’s 39 percent.
Given that the whole point of Letterman’s WGA side deal was to prove that writers are, um, worth something, isn’t this a bad thing for the writers? Not really–not yet. (Keep in mind that I am paid to write for a living, of course.) As I and others have written, it’s natural that viewers would be more curious to see Jay and Conan working without a net than to see Letterman to return to business as usual. If weeks go by without Dave gaining ground, though, that’s a problem for the writers. Once the novelty wears off, viewers should gravitate toward shows with fresh comedy bits (not to mention A-list guests). If not, the WGA has a p.r. problem.
So can Jay maintain his lead? Based on one night, I don’t think so–I suspect Letterman will at least narrow the gap, if not take the late-night lead. While I thought Jay did an admirable job last night, his achievement was to create an approximation of a normal Tonight show. But if you want a normal late-night show, Dave can give you that now, with better guests.
What distinguished the beginning of Conan O’Brien’s show, on the other hand, was the sense that he was winging it–that it was just one guy and a camera, spinning a ring on his desk to see what would hold our attention. (And Conan had the biggest bump of any host, nearly doubling his audience.) There’s a kind of raw, early-days-of-TV energy to that, and if any host can tap into that and keep it up, it just might infuse a danger and authenticity into late-night that we haven’t seen in a while. When’s the last time you’ve been really excited about late-night network TV before this week?
At best, that could even help out late-night writers, by shaking them out of their doldrums and encouraging them to try new things once the strike is over. Getting the strike settled, after all, is only half of TV’s problem. The other half is keeping people watching once the strike is over.