While loyal viewers undoubtedly noticed the absence of striking writers at the late-night comedy shows, it made little difference in their viewing habits, ratings show.
Jon Stewart changed back the name of his Comedy Central program from “A Daily Show” to “THE Daily Show” with the return of writers on Wednesday, and there will be no need for filler like the trumped-up “feud” with Conan O’Brien over Mike Huckabee.
But his audience didn’t drift away because of the month without writers. The 1.6 million viewers he averaged during January was the same as he had last year. Teammate Stephen Colbert’s audience of 1.2 million last month was actually up 6 percent from the 2007 average, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The most intriguing late-night duel — David Letterman returning with his writers, and Jay Leno without — didn’t change the status quo much, either.
“The audience made the decision of which of the two hosts they wanted to watch,” said Rick Ludwin, chief of late-night programming at NBC. “They made the decision 13 years ago.”
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Leno’s “Tonight” show has averaged 5.17 million viewers since his return, up from the pre-strike average of 5 million. Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS increased from 3.8 million pre-strike to 4.05 million after he went back on the air after the new year. In general, viewership tends to go up for these shows during winter.
For Letterman, it undoubtedly represented his last, best chance to eclipse Leno, who relinquishes the “Tonight” show chair to Conan O’Brien next year.
Yet Leno kept his opening monologue intact, reportedly writing the material himself. The writers’ guild, of which Leno is a member, argued that he was violating strike rules by doing that. Leno disagreed and plowed ahead and, despite threatening to take disciplinary action against the comic, the union never did.
Producers wanted to keep the show as familiar as they could to viewers to minimize the chance they’d channel surf elsewhere, Ludwin said.
“If the ‘Tonight’ show had turned into ‘Meet the Press,’ and we were interviewing people on the monetary policies of Europe, that might have been different,” he said.
The closest Ludwin came to admitting fear that the strike would have ended Leno’s dominance? “None of us wanted to face the circumstances we wound up facing,” he said.
Folks backstage at the “Late Show” were privately unhappy that Leno was allowed to keep his monologue intact. Even back to the Johnny Carson days, it’s the focal point of the show.
Dig deep into Nielsen numbers, and CBS says it finds some encouraging signs. Letterman’s viewership was actually up slightly in January compared to the year before, despite the ratings of CBS’ 10 p.m. shows dropping 16 percent because of strike-caused reruns. Ratings analysts say many viewers stick with a network into late-night if they like the 10 p.m. drama.
Meanwhile, Leno is down year-to-year while NBC’s 10 p.m. shows actually increased.
O’Brien’s audience of just over 2 million people nightly on “Late Night” last month is virtually identical in size to his pre-strike count, Nielsen said.
“Late Night,” along with the Comedy Central shows, also tried to keep their formats intact. For Stewart, Colbert and O’Brien, the immediate difference viewers with the return of writers is less filler; Mike Huckabee may have paid his last visit to play air hockey with Colbert.