We're still four months away from Conan O'Brien's TBS debut, but the networks are already starting to downplay his new show. Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly, who flirted heavily with Coco but ended up not going all the way, predicted Wednesday at a Beverly Hills TV-industry roundtable that O'Brien wouldn't be able to get above a 1.0 Nielsen rating in the advertiser-worshiped demographic of viewers under 50. "The decimal will be on the left side of the number, not the right side," Reilly said. Cable usually doesn’t reach the heights that broadcast does, he added, and had Conan ended up at Fox, "there would have been an enormous amount of pressure that the decimal was on the right side."
That’s all well and good except for one thing: The decimal point is currently on the left side for the big boys of network late night. For the past two weeks, both Jay Leno and David Letterman have been averaging below a 1.0 in the 18 to 49 demo. Last week, Jay earned a 0.9 to Dave's 0.8; two weeks ago, both shows were at a 0.9.
Sure, it's summer, overall viewing levels at the networks are lower, and the NBA playoffs on ABC, which ran late on the East Coast, might have impacted averages as well. But even during the regular season, rating trends for the network late-night shows were headed downward. In May 2009, Late Night and Tonight both had their decimal points where Reilly thought they should be — but during the May sweeps, without the excitement of a sextortion scandal or Cocogate, Dave managed only a 0.9, and Leno was just barely above a 1.0.
There's a good chance, of course, that once viewers return to check out the new fall shows, both Jay and Dave will climb back to non-fraction territory, but not by that much. And it’s worth pointing out that Comedy Central's Daily Show With Jon Stewart often averages a 0.8 with adults 18 to 49; same thing with Adult Swim. So execs can arbitrarily gauge success by a decimal point, but if they look past the period, they’ll see that in late night, at least, there really isn't that much of a difference these days between cable and broadcast.