Conan's first show won't air until 11 tonight, but the thrusting and parrying about his ratings, and what they mean for the rest of the late-night landscape, has already begun in earnest. Last week, Comedy Central made a preemptive hype strike, touting the fact that last month The Daily Show was the No. 1 late-night show among viewers under 50 for the first time ever. This semi-bogus boast (we'll explain why later) was the opening act in what's likely to be months of media hand-wringing and network spinning over Coco's impact. Before the first Nielsen numbers come out tomorrow, however, Vulture would like to go on record with our official position on the matter: Barring a Lone Star–like fiasco, trying to divine any real meaning from O'Brien's early poll numbers is a complete waste of time. As one TV sage puts it, "I don't think it really matters."
Let's begin with the ratings for tonight's debut, which will be available by tomorrow afternoon. There's a very real possibility that O'Brien will start off with a bang, possibly outdrawing The Tonight Show or Late Show. While that would make for a great press release headline, it really won't tell us whether Coco will still be drawing big crowds six months from now. Remember, Lopez Tonight bowed to a pretty huge 1.7 million viewers last November (over 3 million if you count simulcasts on other Turner networks such as TNT), outrating The Daily Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live with young adults. Within less than six months, however, Lopez was down to around 1 million overall viewers and just over 600,000 viewers under 50.
Cable shows — particularly well-hyped ones, as Conan certainly has been — have a tendency to start big then lose steam. AMC, for instance, put out a press release last August declaring Rubicon its biggest-ever debut (this was before The Walking Dead) and noting that the network had now gone "three for three" in terms of series launches. Within a few weeks, however, Rubicon saw its numbers collapse; the network still hasn't announced whether it's planning a second season of the series.
Then there's the scenario in which Conan starts off smaller than some are forecasting.
"If he wasn't doing a huge number on NBC, he's not going to do a huge number on TBS," our ratings expert says. (True, though O'Brien signed off with pretty big numbers, especially if applied to cable.) While you'd think Conan shouldn't have any trouble matching Lopez's first-night numbers, it's by no means a slam dunk. After all, Lopez's core audience is very young and perhaps even more loyal than Team Coco: While there are many middle-aged white guys with talk shows, Lopez pretty much had the Latino audience to himself. (TBS's ratings releases for his show continue to tout his audience as the most ethnically diverse in late-night.)
But unless O'Brien comes in below what Lopez has been averaging in recent months, a so-so debut probably won't hurt him much, either. TBS has already had success convincing advertisers to shell out nearly as much for Conan as they do for network shows. And while overall ratings matter a lot, so does the quality of a show's audience: It's very likely Conan's audience will be more upscale (read: rich) than the one for Lopez, as well as younger than those of the network shows.
Then there's The Daily Show, which some are already suggesting is O'Brien's real competitor. There's no denying that Jon Stewart's Comedy Central series (and to a lesser degree, The Colbert Report) has became a major player in late-night. Not only are the ratings legitimately strong, but the never-ending election cycle has made Stewart's political bent all the more valuable. While Dave and Jay only stand out these days when they have big-name guests, rather than for their familiar recurring comedy bits, Stewart super-serves an upscale audience with a half-hour broadcast far more culturally relevant than his peers.
But last week's Comedy Central blast touting Stewart's October numbers was, like many of the political ads The Daily Show skewered in recent months, only half-true. Yes, Stewart outrated Leno and Letterman, but the comparison isn't apples vs. apples. His show airs at 11 p.m., when there are far more viewers available, and runs for only 30 minutes. The CBS and NBC shows start at 11:35 p.m. and run for an hour, allowing for significant fall-off after midnight. If you compare all three shows' first 30 minutes, Dave and Jay both draw more young viewers than Stewart.
None of this is to suggest that somehow Stewart really isn't doing very well; he is. Instead, it's just important to keep in mind that — as much as folks covering TV, and those working in it, would like it to be otherwise — there's no longer a simple way to declare winners and losers in late-night. The landscape has grown far too complicated to crown a single king (or queen, if you're a Chelsea Handler aficionado). As media analyst Brad Adgate told the L.A. Times over the weekend, "There's a lot of princes, even a princess, but there's no king."
In the end, the best barometer of how O'Brien is doing for TBS will probably be a mix of both raw Nielsen numbers and how his show is doing buzz-wise six months from now, long after the Coco hype has cooled. If, after a likely strong premiere, O'Brien manages to settle into numbers where he's improving Lopez's 11 p.m. ratings while also remaining relevant on the pop culture radar, it's likely TBS will be able to declare its big hire a success. And if he drops below Lopez's numbers, expect the spin from TBS HQ in Atlanta to reach Karl Rove proportions.