Late-Night Wars: Is Conan O'Brien's 'Tonight Show' In Trouble?

So, this isn't good news for NBC.

For the last few weeks, the NBC line on Conan O'Brien's takeover of The Tonight Show has been that, while he had lost some total viewers as compared to Jay Leno, he was doing better in the younger demographics that the networks prioritized — he had lowered the average age of the audience by about ten years, they pointed out.

Now, things are getting worse.

How it looks, and whether it really matters, after the jump...

This past week, O'Brien struggled even more, with total viewer numbers down more than a third from a year ago under Leno. And things are tightening up even with younger viewers, though they still like O'Brien more than they did Leno.

It's much too early for panic, of course. Specific guests have a huge effect on late-night numbers, which makes them more volatile than you might think when you're looking at a relatively short span of time. The new Tonight Show is still a young enterprise; crawling out from under a legacy of that size and finding your own voice is not easy, especially when the network has cut your legs out by encouraging Jay fans not to move on and become Conan fans, but to wait for Jay to come back at 10:00 p.m. every weeknight in the fall.

Moreover, O'Brien has wiggled out from under doubters before. He is an acquired taste, and he's very different from Leno, and some existing Tonight Show fans are undoubtedly still smarting from what they perceive as shoddy treatment of Jay. O'Brien is a smart guy — he's a good, imaginative writer and an engaging personality on television.

But it puts NBC in an awfully tricky position. You can't just cancel The Tonight Show if doesn't work out the way you want. What would happen if it became clear that this was all a horrible mistake, as many Leno fans have insisted it was from the beginning? That O'Brien was well-suited for an offbeat show at a late hour and isn't suited for the 11:30 slot, where people aren't so accustomed to foul-mouthed puppets?

It's not an ill-conceived revival of The Bionic Woman: you can't just stop making it and pretend it never happened. And it's not really like it was when they first gave Conan the 12:30 spot — the guy in that job could be shuffled out after a couple of years and replaced with somebody else without too much hassle — many late-late-night projects come and go without much hubbub. This is much more of a long-term question.

The issue isn't so much what the ratings look like for Conan O'Brien as compared to Jay Leno. It's more like: So what? For years, David Letterman was comfortably beaten by Leno. He even talked about it in interviews, and about the fact that he'd made peace with it. Is NBC prepared to go down that road with O'Brien? Because if not, it's not clear that there's a backup plan.

Generally, ratings races are closely followed because they suggest what a network is going to do next — keep, cancel, revamp. In this case, the ratings may just be telling the story of what NBC is going to find when it opens a gift it's already paid for and will be living with for quite a few years.



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