Which Talk-Show Host Has the Poorest Fans, and Thirteen Other Unexpected Late-Night Ratings Facts

Last fall, Vulture dug deep into the Nielsen ratings to uncover a couple dozen unexpected factoids about the Way We Watch TV Now. Today, we decided to slip on our Sherlock caps and investigate what’s going on in the world of late-night TV, and we’re not just talking the tiresome battle between Dave and Jay. We hopped all around the dial to figure out what folks seek out around the midnight hour. A few caveats: Most of our data is based on what TV types call “most current live plus seven” ratings, which translates into any viewership which takes place within a week of broadcast blended with overnight ratings if DVR data isn’t yet available (there’s a lag of a couple of weeks). We looked at Nielsen numbers from the start of the season through late February, and we didn’t count repeat telecasts. Okay, now that the boring stuff is out of the way: Slip on your comfiest pair of pajamas, grab a Colortini, and let’s start this ratings slumber party.

*At least among folks who aren’t baby boomers. Yes, Leno (average audience this season: 3.9 million) and Letterman (3.4 million) still bring in the most eyeballs overall among entertainment talk shows. But take out the large numbers of AARP- and AARP-adjacent members (i.e., those over 50), and The Daily Show has emerged as the clear ruler of the after-hours empire. Stewart’s 1.4 million adults ages 18 to 49 (out of a total audience of 2.4 million) beats runners-up Jay and Dave (currently in a virtual tie this season, with about 1.2 million each). Sure, Stewart has the advantage of an earlier time slot, and his show is only a half-hour, thereby avoiding the big drop-offs that the broadcast shows suffer. But in the group ad buyers covet most, Stewart’s show is a moment of Zen. (Footnote! ABC’s news-oriented Nightline has the biggest overall audience in late night, with a few thousand more total viewers than Leno and a demo ratings that match Stewart’s original broadcasts. But, since it’s not a talk show, we don’t consider it in the running for the title of “Late-Night King.”)
While Stewart is tops in all adults 18 to 49, it’s a bit of a — how would Gloria Steinem put it? — sausage party. The Comedy Central host’s army of 830,000 young and middle-aged men easily outdistances the roughly 500,000 men of a similar age who watch either Jay or Dave. Yet, Stewart brings in a relatively small 513,000 women under 50, below the 650,000 or so women 18 to 49 who go to sleep with either Jay or Dave. Photo: Al Messerschmidt/2011 Getty Images
Seems like Hispanic viewers don’t hold Conan responsible for George Lopez’s TBS exit. Conan has the highest concentration of Latino viewers under 50 of any late-night talker, with a so-called “index” score of 61, per Nielsen data. (The index number refers to the concentration of viewers in a show’s audience, with 100 being the median; the higher the number, the more popular the show is with that particular audience compared to the overall audience.) Chelsea Lately is runner-up with a 59, while Letterman is apparently least appealing to Latinos with a mere 26 index rating. As for black audiences, here’s a surprise: Jimmy Kimmel Live! has the largest concentration of African-American viewers under 50, with an index of 173 (which ties it with Nightline). In second place with younger blacks: Craig Ferguson. Leno has the lowest percentage of black viewers in this demo. As for the whitest kids in late night: Daily Show is tops in its concentration of young white audiences. Photo: Meghan Sinclair/2010 Conaco, LLC for TBS. All Rights Reserved.
Conan O’Brien may not be outdrawing Dave, Jay, or Jon, but his TBS show tops one important chart: In terms of the median age of its viewership Conan is easily the youngest-skewing of all the major late-night talkers. His typical viewer is 35, just a tad younger than runner-up Chelsea Lately (37). Comedy Central’s twin titans, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, along with Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, all have viewers in their low-to-mid-forties, but here’s a surprise: CBS’s Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson has the youngest audience profile of any network show, with a median age of 52, tied with NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. David Letterman’s average viewer stands at 55, while the median age of someone watching The Tonight Show With Jay Leno is 57, which means they were only an impressionable 40 when the Dancing Itos won their allegiance to Jay.
We already told you Leno’s average viewer was old. But here’s another way of measuring The Chin’s dominance with the Flomax crowd: Among viewers 65 and over, Leno averages about 1.2 million viewers (about one third of its overall audience of 3.8 million). Not only is that No. 1 among all entertainment shows, it’s also miles ahead of runner-up Letterman (940,00 seniors) and about four times the gray-haired audience for adults 18 to 49 leader Stewart (306,000). But you know whom your grandma hates? Conan O’Brien. He manages a mere 40,000 viewers with folks 65-plus. (Perhaps this Greatest Generation hole is a byproduct of Conan’s divisive Eisenhower mug.)
For most of the day, Investigation Discovery is a respectable, middle-of-the-road cable network when it comes to luring viewers. In prime time, for example, it ranks 28th place among all networks in adults under 50. But once the clock strikes 1 a.m., its relative audience surges. ID is among the ten most-watched cable channels in the 1, 2 and 3 a.m. hours. And with viewers under 50, it becomes the No. 5 network on cable from 3 to 4 a.m., with its average audience of 654,000 young adults beating A&E, USA, and ESPN. Perhaps in much the same way that suburbanite homeowners look to HGTV for inspiration, criminals come home after a long night of burglary and killing to unwind by watching ID for new approaches to law breaking.
Weirdly, Disney Channel is cable’s most-watched network between 1 and 3 a.m., averaging at least 1.2 million viewers in both of those hours. Since Disney doesn’t even rank in the top ten among adults 18 to 49 during that same time frame, we’re assuming the audience is either very young or very old. We’re not sure which is creepier: Kiddie insomniacs who stay up for repeats of Phineas and Ferb, or AARP members (senior stoners?) flocking to late-night toons.
Of all the major late-night talk shows, Comedy Central’s Stewart-Colbert duo gets the biggest boost from DVR viewership: Both shows go up between 60 and 80 percent, on average, once recorded viewing is tallied up. Chelsea, Conan, and Fallon also get double-digit boosts, but Kimmel’s show only goes up 5 percent, the smallest gain of any talker. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Sports and big reality shows such as American Idol also get smaller-than-normal DVR increases, and it’s a sign of how passionate their audiences are. Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC
E!’s Chelsea Lately does very well with all viewers 18 to 34 (it outpaces all four broadcast talkers) and very, very well with women 18 to 34 (where it beats every other talker, including cable compadres Conan and Stewart). But Chelsea is perhaps its strongest with wealthy women under 35 (with “wealthy” defined as annual incomes over $125,000). By this matrix, Handler’s show is drawing nearly four times as many viewers as Letterman and nearly twice as many as Leno. 
CBS prides itself on its broad reach and heartland roots, but its populism also means its late-night shows have the least wealthy audiences. Ferguson’s typical viewer has a median income of $47,800, while Letterman is just a tad richer ($48,600). By contrast, cable’s big talkers are where the (comparative) moneybags hang out: Stewart fans, with a median income of $63,500, are the most loaded of the major talk shows, with Colbert ($62,500) close behind. Conan ($58,700) doesn’t lag by much, while NBCUniversal’s four late-night gabbers (Chelsea, Watch What Happens Live, Leno, Fallon) are right in the middle of the income pack, with audiences boasting median incomes in the low-to-mid-$50K range.
There’s clearly an advantage to hand-crafting your Twitter feed. While Leno and Letterman have the biggest overall TV audiences by a mile, they have no personal account, leaving their shows’ accounts to be filled with unimaginative clips and guest alerts by staffers. Result: Both of their feeds barely draw a crowd, with The Late Show’s at under 200,000 followers and Tonight’s barely above 300,000. The hosts who actually maintain their own personal feeds are richly rewarded by the Internet mob, however: Conan O’Brien, who used Twitter to feed 99 percent-er rage at NBC when he was fired, has the most followers of any host, with over 5 million. Jimmy Fallon, who’s even more prolific with tweeting, is just a hair behind (the numbers change regularly). Comic Chelsea Handler (4.7 million) also does very well on Twitter, thanks to frequent posts and interactions with other users. Stephen Colbert (over 3 million) is another heavyweight, while Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson are hovering at just over one million. (Side note: Kimmel’s personal feed has ten times as many followers as his show’s official Twitter account, demonstrating again that folks respond to personalization.) One outlier in the Twitter theory of late night: Watch What Happens’ Andy Cohen. Despite frequent (and gossipy) 140 character missives, he manages only 655,000 or so followers.
Among kids 12 to 17, TV’s top late-night talker is The Daily Show (average tune-in: 97,000 teens), with Conan and Colbert right behind at around 70,000. Teens have no interest in Andy Cohen, however: Watch What Happens Live is the lowest-rated talker in this demo, averaging about one fifth the tune-in as Stewart’s show. But what about the key breakfast-cereal demo, toddlers and primary schoolers? In ages 2 to 11, Nightline is actually No. 1, with 78,000 young Leslie Knopes staying up for the news. (Cranky Dave Letterman, oddly, boasts the biggest 2 to 11 viewership of entertainment shows, with an average of 65,000 tykes staying up past their bedtimes.) Photo: Donna Svennevik/?2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
Want proof the late-night talk show may be an endangered species? Here’s a stat certain to sober up network execs: Among viewers 18 to 24, counting Saturdays and Sundays, Adult Swim is a dominant No. 1 from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m., averaging just under 400,000 with its mix of twisted toons and alt-comedies. Fox’s network of local affiliates, many of which air The Simpsons or other comedy repeats, actually ranks second with this crowd, followed by MTV, Nick at Night, and ESPN (thanks, SportsCenter).The only broadcast net with talk shows that crack the top ten in this demo is NBC, whose seven-day average late-night audience of 183,000 includes everything from local news and Leno to SNL and Jimmy Fallon (in other words, it’s not an apples to apples comparison).
Or, specifically, they like ESPN’s SportsCenter. Its 11 p.m. broadcast averages around 513,000 adult men under 50, a number that surpasses both Dave (502,000) and Jay (494,000). The bats and balls can’t match Comedy Central’s mighty Stewart-Colbert hour, though which averages around 750,000 young male viewers between 11 a.m. and midnight. Photo: Joe Faraoni/(c) 2009 ESPN, Inc. All rights reserved. For editorial use only. NO ARCHIVING, NO RESALE.
Late Night Ratings Roundup: Who Has the Poorest Fans and More Fun Facts