Conan O’Brien’s ratings fell throughout his debut week last week. That’s not unexpected: you would figure on a big tune-in out of curiosity, including a lot of viewers who are not regular late-night viewers. And while Conan’s ratings tailed off, they also showed signs of finding a level, as his ratings dropped by a lower percentage each night.
Last night, however, David Letterman very nearly beat Conan in the ratings. Bad news for NBC? Well, you’d always rather have more viewers than fewer. But as Josef Adalian notes, giving Conan the Tonight Show was partly a demographic play: if it turns out, when the detailed numbers come in later this week, that he’s bringing in younger viewers than Leno did—and thus potentially higher ad rates—NBC will be feeling better about him. (I’ll also be curious to see the numbers for Stephen Colbert’s heavily promoted trip to Iraq, which had to have cut in to Conan’s former Late Night audience—it certainly drew me away.)
I have to imagine, though, that NBC does not want to go into the fall, and its publicity push for Jay Leno’s primetime show, with the press full of stories about Dave beating Conan. (NBC would counter, understandably, that Dave beat Jay in their first couple years, but I’m not sure that will ease the sting.)
All that said: late night is a marathon, not a sprint, etc. It’s still more fun to be leading, though.