Late-Night’s Old Guard Takes It on the Chin as Ratings Sag

Jay Leno and David Letterman (Photos: Getty Images)

Jay Leno and David Letterman (Photos: Getty Images)

Jay Leno and David Letterman saw their ratings decline during network premiere week compared to a year earlier.

In fact, the aging comedy stars of NBC (Leno is 61) and CBS (Letterman is 64) lost to “Nightline” on ABC during the week of Sept. 19-23, the first time that’s ever happened, according to this story on the New York Times Web site.

For the five days, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” averaged 3.6 million total viewers, “Late Show with David Letterman” had 3.2 million and “Nightline” had 3.9 million. Of course, a victory’s a victory, but it should be noted here that “Nightline” these days is just a 25-minute show – airing nightly from 11:35 p.m. to midnight (10:35-11c). The one-hour “Leno” and “Letterman” shows always have a drop-off in audience in their second half-hours, which brings down their averages.

Still, according to the story, Jay and Dave have never lost to “Nightline” during premiere week, when interest in network television is high and viewers are sampling the networks’ new prime-time shows.

In addition, as the Times story points out, Jay and Dave are both down in the younger demos advertisers crave, compared to a year ago. Where Dave is concerned, that’s despite CBS’s strong showing in prime time in the new fall season’s first week. As for Jay, it’s possible “The Tonight Show” is suffering from NBC’s lackluster performance in the ratings so far in the new season.

Among the later late-night shows, ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” drew an average of 1.8 million viewers nightly during premiere week, NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” averaged 1.7 million and CBS’s “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” had 1.5 million.

What’s it all mean? Well, Jay and Dave still draw the biggest audiences in late-night television among the comedy late-night shows, but network executives – particularly the ones in the research departments who analyze the ratings and interpret them for the other bosses – are particularly interested in trends.

And when all they see are downward trends, they begin to start wondering if it’s time to start thinking about future scenarios for their weakening late-night franchises that don’t necessarily include Jay and Dave. Get the picture?

Watch guest Albert Brooks on Thursday’s “Tonight Show” right here:

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

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