NBC Was Better Off With Conan’s TONIGHT SHOW Ratings

You don’t hear any open talk about it at NBC, but the disturbing and honest truth for the Peacock network is that Jay Leno’s version of the TONIGHT SHOW continues to lag behind the ratings that Conan O’Brien drew when he hosted the TONIGHT SHOW only a few months ago. The fact of that matter is that NBC gained absolutely nothing by giving Conan O’Brien the heave-ho, and has actually lost ground in the late night talk TV rating wars.

True, Conan O’Brien managed to lose about half of Jay Leno’s old TONIGHT SHOW ratings, yet his version of the TONIGHT SHOW drew a 1.1 rating with adults 18-49, which is hundreds of thousands of viewers better than 1.0 share that Leno currently pulls. And the news for NBC only gets worse, as Leno’s show runs only slightly better than the 0.8 rating that Conan’s new TBS show pulls down. CONAN continues to pull down numbers just about equal to what David Letterman’s CBS show does. Both CONAN and THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN draw a virtual tie at 0.8 18-49 audience numbers, which translates into around 1.5 million viewers overall.

The good news here is that CONAN draws really decent numbers for a cable show to head-on compete with Dave Letterman’s numbers and runs only slightly behind the Jay Leno figures. The bad news for NBC is that Jay Leno seems to be permanently damaged goods now, where less viewers than ever care to tune in and watch. Further, CONAN now cuts itself a nice piece of the late night ratings pie, leaving only smaller pieces for both Leno and Letterman to share. Conan O’Brien must feel some vindication right now. He looks like a big winner here when the ratings are given the fine toothed comb analysis.

Not bad news for the self-deprecating giant red head who has bragged about looking a little bit like Big Bird.

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  • Anonymous

    Funny that Conan’s 1.1 to Leno’s 1.0 at Tonight is significant, but Leno’s 1.0 to Conan’s 0.8 is “only slightly better”. And last week it was 1.0 to 0.7., which I’m sure is still a razor thin margin to this author. Everyone sees whatever they want to see. If we’re truly taking the apples-to-oranges comparison of one Tonight Show year vs. another, then the most glaring error was taking the show away from Leno in 2009. It was in its 15th straight year of being a dominating franchise.

    • JasperAvi

      You have to account for cable television ratings, in which case the 1.0 for Leno to Conan’s 0.8 is actually a completely negligble margin.

      • Anonymous

        Jasper, it’s that constant goalpost-moving that is making some people a little weary of the Conan O’Brien story. But if you insist on it, here’s a tougher one to explain away. In his most recent week of new episodes, Conan did almost identical numbers to what George Lopez did in the same time slot on the same cable channel in the same week a year earlier. Good luck with that one.

        • Lakensun

          You eexplained it away yourself Gary,” if Conan holds this level, by spring his year-over-year lead over Lopez will be in the 50% range. And that doesn’t take into account other likely Conan edges like DVR numbers and disposable income.”

          • Anonymous

            Lakensun, that was an “if” proposition about the future. It was not even attempting to explain away the current situation, which is that Conan is even with Lopez. There is nothing in the excuse playbook for that one.

  • Paul Hooson

    Hello, Gary. You make some great points here. The 15 year “dominating franchise” of the TONIGHT SHOW appears gone for good. NBC spoiled that. By cable TV to network ratings standards, the cable TV ratings for CONAN look pretty powerful to me. Conan O’Brien runs a good race on cable compared to NBC’s Jay Leno version of the network TONIGHT SHOW.

    • Anonymous

      Paul, it’s a tricky one, because NBC has been run like a cable channel- intentionally- for many years and has the prime time numbers to prove it. I don’t know the yardstick people are using to call Conan’s numbers powerful, since he’s currently doing what Lopez did a year earlier (though Lopez would decline in the months to follow, so if Conan holds at this level his year-over-year comps with GLo will look much better). Also, Conan is on the verge of being surpassed by Stewart-Colbert, which obviously is a cable-to-cable, identical time slot comparison. Interesting times, regardless.

  • The truth is that until recently Jay Leno’s lead ins have been even weaker than Conan’s when Leno had the 10 pm show. Conan did a lot of damage to The Tonight Show franchise, and left Leno with picking up the pieces after Leno spent years building The Tonight Show audience.

    It is too soon to tell where Conan’s ratings on TBS will bottom out. So far he’s losing more and more viewers each week.

    • tiki

      Yeah, line up a back to back late night talk show for Leno as well and let’s see the kind of ratings he pulls.

  • Richard

    Actually, NBC was better before Conan came into the picture. Before Conan, Leno was pulling 1.4 in the key demographics.

    When Conan came, he averaged an 1.1.

    So much for a host who was supposed to draw more younger viewers.

    • beeteepee

      That’s because Conan WAS in the picture. The one-two punch of Leno’s Tonight Show into Conan’s Late Night was a great formula for NBC. They messed with a good thing and now the two are competing, diluting the audience that would have simply set the TV to NBC and had two hours of entertainment. As someone who used to watch the two back to back I’m now left feeling like late night TV won’t ever be that fun again, and I don’t consistently watch either show anymore.

  • NBC didn’t even give Conan a chance when he transitioned from the Late Show to the Tonight show. They dropped the ax prematurely. Ironically, it’s almost the same scenario as when Conan first appeared. He was doing poorly at first, NBC wanted to cancel him, and then his following grew. And grew. Also, when Conan took over the Tonight Show, NBC was pressuring him to ‘tone it down’ for the old fart viewers who were used to Leno. NBC really effed this whole thing up. Leno came off as a doucebag, NBC like the evil empire, and Conan is the only one who slogged on and brought a now rabidly loyal fanbase to a lowly cable network.

    • Conan has limited appeal. His only real competition now is Jon Stewart who is already catching up to him. Conan is losing viewers every week including viewers in the younger demographic. He’s really not competing head to head with the big boys now. Conan can do okay in the minor league of basic cable which is where he belongs.

      • TexasTank

        From your post I can tell you’re a little older and not really part of the demo. It’s okay. Leno’s sinking and that’s good news for the Late Night world.

  • Yankl

    Nobody is pointing out that Conan’s tonight show did not have to compete with an 11:00 PM Leno on TBS.

  • anthxb

    Seems like an article with a tired and biased slant. Still too early to tell how this will all shake out, but:

    Loser — Letterman. Am surprised the article didn’t mention the guy who has lost the most mojo, and that’d be David Letterman.

    Winner — Leno. Clear now that NBC made a huge mistake in dropping him. Has reclaimed status as #1 late night host.

    Loser — Leno. Clearly hurt by the debacle and now has much lower ratings than he had before. Will probably be forever typecast as evil guy who pushed out the angelic Conan.

    Winner? Loser? — Conan. Getting good ratings, albeit starting at 11:00 and albeit in continuous decline. Where will he bottom out?

    • Yankl

      I don’t get the “Leno is bad” thing. Didn’t Conan leverage NBC to get the Tonight Show gig in spite of Leno already being successful? Didn’t Leno have Conan on the show and offer nationally that he had no ill-will toward Conan and wished him the best? Where is this coming from? Conan fizzled on the Tonight show while Leno was also fizzling in pirme time and that is why Leno was brought back? What was Leno supposed to do? Refuse a job that was open because of someone else’s failure?

      • Anonymous

        It was Leno and NBC’s choice to push for keeping Conan back in 2004. They leveraged him to stay (they could have let him go to another network, other offers were out there). Jay’s 2004 speech sums it up best. He was going to bow out gracefully (his own choice). His choice to do the 10pm gig and his choice to move back to 11:35 contradict the way he had tried to portray himself. He moved from being a class-act to spotlight junky. If you choose to make a big statement like he did and then renig on it, is it really that surprising people will dislike you for it?

        • Jsbrenner

          Leno bowed out gracefully, O-Brien failed, Leno failed and Leno was asked back to the Tonight Show. What is your point exactly?

          • Race

            His point is that, yes, Leno should have refused to come back to the Tonight Show. That would have been the classy thing to do. Classiness is sometimes a very subtle thing to comprehend, but in this case it is pretty clear. Some things are more important than money or keeping a job.

          • Yankl

            Then O’Brien should have just as quietly decided to not take Leno out when it was clear Leno was successful in the Tonight time slot. It was O’Brien who threatened to jump networks and compete directly with Leno if he did not get what he wanted.

        • zombo

          This isn’t Leno’s first involvement in talk show drama. From essentially stealing the Tonight Show from Letterman to an executive producer threatening to black list Hollywood people who went on other talk shows back in the 90s to the current drama of stealing back the Tonight Show after leaving and becoming a complete failure in primetime. Leno has a history, which is why he is the bad guy in this. It’s part of a pattern he has developed over the years.

  • Karmakill71

    Leno is old news. Nobody cares, especially after how he acted towards Conan.

  • salty

    leno represents greed and everything which greed and power stand for. Conan represents Nobility, Smart Humor, kindness and HEART which this country is in need of. Translation: That’s why there is still audiences across this country watching Leno. Majority being people who can’t understand smart humor. Watching Conan makes me smarter and Leno dumber… sorry Leno fans, just speaking the truth here…

    • anthxb

      This is unintentionally revealing of the sort of solipsistic self-regard of Conan and his yuppie audience.

      Or, if this is meant as parody, well-done!

      • Yankl

        Regardless, it is more about taste than intelligence. My wife and I are both Ph.D.s and college professors. She does not like Conan’s ironic, SNL style which I do like, while she feels comfortable with Jay’s more traditional appproach. In any event, Ricky Minor’s brass section rocks.

  • Lopez

    Just remember that these rating never include the internet audience, which I’m sure would add a whole lot more to the total. I’m a college student and can’t afford cable, but I definitely watch on the internet every chance I get.

  • What are the overall audience ratings for Leno vs. Conan? I understand demographics are important, but not everyone is in the 18-49 age group.

  • Max

    I think a major factor in Conan “losing” younger viewers is that younger viewers tend to watch their shows online as much as possible. There are less ads, and you can watch on your own time. Ever since it was available, I always watched Conan’s Late Night Show, his Tonight show, and his current show online. I know TV ratings are important for ad revenue, but I think looking at JUST the TV ratings is misleading in regards to over-all appeal. There must be significant online ad revenue as well. It’s just bizarre that almost no one ever mentions this.

  • summer

    Business is business – who in their right mind would say yes okay it is time for me to give up my job now to the next guy waiting in line, only a fool and Leno is no fool. He was told he had to retire because Conan decided his time has come. Clearly he was wrong.

    George Lopez did not welcome Conan taking his time slot with open arms as it was reported – he was told to.

  • Princss33

    conan is a huge bore

  • SeattleAl

    I don’t know why TV is so fixated on the 18-49 number. Look at TOTAL ratings and Leno is killing Conan two to one. I’m 52 and I have more spendable income that at any time when I was under 50. That’s the case for everyone I know over 50. We’re the people you ought to target for advertising.

  • Karl

    ^ Marketers target the 18-49 group hoping to build brand loyalty in young people. You may have more expendable income than a 21 year old, but you probably also stick to brands you’ve been using for a while. Businesses’ main goal is to grow their yearly revenue. The only way they can do that is produce more innovative and newer products. The 18-49 demographic is more prone to buying these products.

    I’m 32 and have always like Conan because he’s self-deprecating, original, and in my opinion, very funny. I also grew up watching the SNL and The Simpsons (which he both used to write for). So I guess it’s no coincidence that I would be drawn to CoCo.

  • Kristen

    Conan SUCKS and is a whiner. Where was the outrage when he kicked Leno out. When I first heard he was replacing Leno I couldn’t believe it. I knew I would never watch Conan. Never liked his show and I never will. I knew I would than watch Letterman. Conan didn’t get the ratings. Do drama’s or sitcoms hold a grudge against the actors on the new show that replaced them? Do they say no, don’t put our show on the air, leave the current deadbeat show that is not getting the ratings on. We don’t want any hard feelings. It is so ridiculous. It’s all about ratings. Conan acts liked he is owed this. I don’t think he is funny at all and I knew he would bomb on his new show. If the whiner Conan wants to blame someone all he has to do is look in the mirror. Grow up Conan and be a man for once in your pathetic life.

  • latenightwatcher

    the only people who watch jay leno are the people with the capabilities of appearing on his jaywalking segments. why is it jay’s fans point out conan forcing out leno? do they truly believe that? if so…how convenient to forget that it was jay who forced out johnny. and johnny’s ratings were WAY higher to anything jay has ever witnessed. jay is VERY conniving. he did it to carson and letterman. now to conan. jay is such a stand up guy…where was he when zucker got canned? zucker stood up for leno…did leno do the same for zucker? first carson…then letterman…then marsalis…then conan…now eubanks. when will leno stop stabbing people in the back? you better watch out mavis!!! how many of jay’s peers have sided with him? how many bridges has leno burned? look up howard stern. jay leno is to late night what lebron james is to basketball. a self proclaimed king…who thinks he’s a good guy…but doesn’t know/believe he truly is an a**hole!!!

    • summer

      Johnny Carson retired and wanted Letterman to replace him. NBC chose Leno over Letterman – NBC knew best….as Letterman is just a bitter old man.

  • Thesas

    Hundreds of thousands better? Its only 0.1 off? Yeah, NBC is crying wolf right now.

  • Truth Squad

    Max, your “history” is completely wrong.

    “Back in 2004 Leno agreed on air to leave “graciously” when Conan was to get his shot at the Tonight Show (which he clearly did not do).”

    Of course Leno was gracious in turning over the show. He had Conan on his last episode, making it all about Conan instead of about himself. Conan thanked Leno on that episode and on his first Tonight Show for being a gentleman about the transition.

    “The horrible job Leno did at 10pm was killing the ratings for the following 11pm local newscasts, and subsequently, killed Conan’s ratings at 11:30pm.”

    Leno handed O’Brien a Tonight Show that had consistently been in first place for years. Within one week, Conan had it in third place where it remained until the last few weeks when it was clear he’d be cancelled. Leno’s 10 PM show was not even on the air for the first four months of Conan’s time in the cellar. How is it Jay’s fault that Conan lost half the audience?

    “Leno was given a FAR longer period of time to settle in when HE took the Tonight Show back in 1991 (his ratings were HORRIBLE until that Hugh Grant interview in 1995).”

    No, they weren’t. Leno was in first place for several years until Letterman came on. Then Leno was a respectable second getting at least a 3.3 every night. Conan averaged a 2.1 for most of his run.

    “I do not think that Conan acts like he is owed ANYTHING, he’s just being honest about that fact that he was screwed.”

    Yeah, his show flop and he gets 40 million dollars, a new show on another network and a chance to run around claiming to be a victim because the failure of his show was everyone else’s fault. Please, someone screw me like that.

  • Kichy1998

    Conan bites but I’m actually starting to watch Dave now. Leno is tanking now due to poor writing and stupid you tube-type clips being inserted into the monologue. And Rickey Minor sucks too.

  • ………….

    Lets get real Leno sucks.

  • Nonya

    Brand loyalty to a talk show host is borderline retarded. Arguing about it on the internet is “full retard.”

    • Mac Arena

      I’m so glad I read to the bottom of this to get to this post! It is the most insightful statement of any here. Thanks.

  • Uncle Jesus

    I liked Leno when it was followed by Conan show. I liked it because it had better monologue than now. I always felt the Conan was a bit more amateur and had slapstick comedy — this is not to say he wasn’t funny. Leno would make political jokes while Conan would make funny faces.

    I stopped watching Leno because he is unfunny at the time – I didn’t stop watching him because of tribal mentality of sticking to your clan. I can’t watch Conan since I don’t have cable (yep, we’re in 2011, and I still refuse to pay for TV – I pay them by watching ads, that’s more than enough). I do watch Real Time on the net but feel Conan is not worth the effort of streaming or downloading. Late Night has sucked recently.

  • what the fugg 31

    Will you people find something else to do ! Anybody who finds Jay Leno funny is too old to hear him, give us a break. Also leave Carson out of it, if carson had as much competition as talk show hosts today, he would have been struggling as much as the rest.