Late Night TV’s New Season: Who’s Hot? Who’s Not?

Jay Leno and David Letterman (NBC/CBS)

Jay Leno and David Letterman (NBC/CBS)

What have we here? Something we haven’t seen in a very long time: A virtual dead heat in the late-night talk arena.

From Sept. 18 through Sept. 22, the first official week of the new fall season, CBS’ ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ and NBC’s ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ battled to a virtual tie. “Virtual” because Leno in fact won, but only by 15,000 viewers – a miniscule number in TV terms. Dave averaged 3.78 million viewers per night, while Jay drew 3.795 million, says Nielsen.

And the later late-night shows – CBS’ ‘Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson’ and NBC’s ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’ – each averaged 1.8 million viewers at 12:35 a.m.

The situation represents a big change from the days when Leno and Conan O’Brien dominated at 11:35 p.m. and 12:35 a.m., respectively. But that was before NBC dumped Leno for Conan, gave Leno that ill-fated 10 p.m. show, then restored Leno to ‘The Tonight Show’ and showed Conan the door. Now, Leno and ‘The Tonight Show’ are still dealing with the fallout and Conan’s poised to return to late-night on TBS Nov. 8, which threatens to further upend the time period.

Some say late-night TV hasn’t been this volatile since Johnny Carson retired in 1992, but the truth is, late night has never been this volatile period.

What’s the deal? Let’s analyze the situation, show by show:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: Ever since he returned to ‘The Tonight Show,’ Jay’s monologues haven’t been as sharp and his long-time bandleader/sidekick Kevin Eubanks left. Establishing an on-screen rapport with newcomer Rickey Minor has been an ongoing challenge. And Jay’s nice-guy image took a huge hit during the Conan drama, with many people believing Jay took an active role in ousting Conan. Well, did he? Who knows? Jay won’t do interviews to set the record straight. Temperature: MEDIUM

The Late Show with David Letterman: Why is he gaining on Leno? Compared to ‘The Tonight Show,’ Dave’s ‘Late Show’ seems like a model of stability and Dave himself is now the respected, revered elder statesman of late-night. His image hasn’t taken a hit like Jay’s has – despite Dave’s on-air admission that he carried on affairs with women on his staff, a story that now seems all but forgotten (probably because he remained true to his relationship with his fans). Temperature: MOSTLY WARM, OCCASIONALLY HOT

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: Though they too are virtually tied, the real news is that ratings for the NBC and CBS late-night shows are down generally. Why? It’s simple – the continuing fracturing of the late-night audience. Just look at all the shows to choose from now: ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘Colbert,’ ‘George Lopez,’ ‘Chelsea Handler,’ ‘Mo’Nique,’ and soon, ‘Conan,’ plus ‘Nightline’ and ‘Jimmy Kimmel.’ Late-night will never be the same again. Ferguson and Fallon? They’re very different personalities who both do very good shows, but they’re not likely to see their audiences grow significantly anytime soon. Temperature: WARM

Nightline’ and ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’: You know what ABC’s problem is? It’s that they program their late-night time period differently than everyone else – a blessing and a curse. From 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m., ‘Nightline’ averaged 3.6 million viewers on premiere week – up there with Jay and Dave. ‘Kimmel’ had 1.7 million viewers from 12:05 to 1:05, on par with Ferguson and Fallon  Kimmel’s show is so good that it’s possible he could score numbers on par with Jay and Dave if ABC ever gave him a chance to compete head-to-head with them. But as long as ‘Nightline’ remains competitive, ABC isn’t likely to show its faith in Kimmel by pitting him against Leno and Letterman. Temperature: VERY HOT

What do you think of the volatility in late-night? Are you still watching the elder statesmen, Jay and Dave? Or have you moved on to some of the other late-night shows? And what about Conan? Will you watch him?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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