David Letterman is king of late-night television again.
You just won't hear him or CBS crowing about it anytime soon — not after NBC gave the crown to Conan O'Brien based on one week's ratings, much to their regret now. Letterman started his vacation last week with a four-week winning streak, the first since 1995.
It just all goes to show that late-night TV is experiencing remarkable changes in viewing habits, with more than Letterman and O'Brien in the mix. They're even competing with machines; DVR playbacks of prime-time shows is a growing habit.
The headline, though, is what is happening at the "Tonight" show.
With O'Brien, it has become a home for young viewers, and preciously few others. He's a particular hit among men up to age 34, and is winning among the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC uses as the basis for its ad sales. Yet the show has lost 2 million viewers in a year: Jay Leno's "Tonight" averaged 4.6 million viewers each night during the last week of July 2008; a year later, O'Brien had 2.6 million.
"We're exactly where we thought we'd be with Conan," NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker said. "He's doing incredibly well demographically. We always thought that Conan would skew much younger. That's really where his strength lies."
One of NBC's most important and profitable franchises, "Tonight" has always been the broadest of broadcast shows. Leno last week talked about emulating comics such as Jack Benny and Bill Cosby to reach all of America. The transition of Andy Richter from a couch buddy to an Ed McMahon-like announcer indicates O'Brien has similar ambitions.
Experience shows the folly of counting O'Brien out too early. Still, can NBC truly be happy with a show that appears to turn off such a large segment of viewers?
The true test will come this fall, when Leno begins his prime-time NBC comedy show, and researchers watch what it means for the late-night lineup, said Angela Bromstad, NBC entertainment chief.
Many of Leno's older viewers have migrated to Letterman, although the CBS host's audience gain doesn't match what O'Brien has lost. Some have turned to ABC News' "Nightline," which has also seen its ratings go up.
The Michael Jackson story helped "Nightline," whose audience over the past two months is 14 percent larger than it was over the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. But the show has gradually built in popularity since debuting a new format five years ago, said James Goldston, executive producer. It has more than a million followers on Twitter, which "Nightline" uses to alert viewers to stories and sometimes solicit questions for interviews, he said.
"People are looking around and there are a lot of people who haven't seen the new `Nightline,'" Goldston said. "It's up to us to make the show compelling enough that they stick with us."
Two shows featuring President Barack Obama, including Terry Moran's "day in the life" story, got big audiences.
"Nightline" often beats the comedy shows in the ratings, but has an advantage: It's a half-hour program, and ratings for the second half hour of the comedy shows drop off as people go to bed.
Over at CBS, Letterman's show has felt more like an event. He's had some memorable planned moments, such as Paul McCartney's return to the theater where the Beatles first performed in the United States, and some unplanned ones, including his apology to Sarah Palin for a crude joke involving her family. Letterman has mined the Palin incident repeatedly for self-deprecatory humor.
As he gets older, he seems more comfortable in the role of traditional talk show host. The 1980s Letterman show would have shot people from a cannon — as "Tonight" did last week. Not now.
"I think there's been a big difference in Dave," said Regis Philbin, a frequent "Late Show" guest who appeared on Letterman's last show before his vacation. "He feels better now. He feels strong. He's bolstered by the ratings. It's an upper for him."
The downside for Letterman is that most of his new viewers are older, considered less valuable to advertisers. There's more of a market there than in the past, with pharmaceutical companies more eager to advertise, said David Poltrack, CBS' chief researcher.
When Leno returns, will those viewers gravitate toward him again and go to bed early, before Letterman?
To a large extent, Letterman's career has been defined by the "Tonight" show. He got one of his first breaks with Johnny Carson on "Tonight," and had his biggest career disappointment when Leno was picked over him to succeed Carson on the NBC show.
Now the "Tonight" show that people long remembered is gone and Letterman's "Late Show" is the closest thing to it.
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EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org