Lisa de Moraes TV Column: First Time Letterman's Ratings Beat Conan O'Brien's

The Dave-and-Julia combo on Tuesday bested the duo of Eddie and Conan. That night, O'Brien also had his lowest numbers as
The Dave-and-Julia combo on Tuesday bested the duo of Eddie and Conan. That night, O'Brien also had his lowest numbers as "Tonight Show" host. (By John Paul Filo -- Cbs Via Associated Press)
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By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, June 11, 2009

CBS late-night star David Letterman thwacked his new NBC rival Conan O'Brien for the first time Tuesday night, as Conan's "Tonight Show" continues to slide in overnight household ratings.

Letterman clocked 3.4 percent of the TV homes in the metered markets, which represent about 70 percent of the country. Conan snagged 2.9 percent -- his lowest number since his debut as "Tonight" host last week and a far cry from the 7.1 percent he logged on his first night.

It was the first time Dave had whomped Conan; on Monday, Dave had come close, with Howard Stern as guest, but Conan managed to eke out the win in the early numbers.

Many things worked in Dave's favor Tuesday night, starting with his guest Julia Roberts, who, as many non-fans have noted, can't guarantee a movie will open these days. But she can cop a TV rating when she's paired with Dave. His musical guest Tuesday night was the Black Eyed Peas. Conan's guest Tuesday was Eddie Murphy -- another good "get," but not as good as Roberts -- and his musical guest was Bonnie Raitt, -- an odd choice for a guy supposed to be chasing younger viewers.

And on that subject, Tuesday's "Tonight" show finally aired that taped bit Conan had teased us with when he was Jay Leno's final guest on "Tonight Show." You know, the one in which Conan was made up to look like Mrs. Doubtfire's older brother and moderated a focus group of old folks who were asked to comment on clips of Conan from his days hosting NBC's 12:30 a.m. program "Late Show." Most of the old folk did not like what they saw -- one even suggested Conan should be institutionalized -- and hilarity ensued. Now, nobody loves a joke at the expense of The Greatest Generation more than we do, but if you are really trying to get "Tonight Show" to skew even younger by bringing Conan on as host and mocking older viewers, what's with the retro deco set and Conan in a suit and tie? Just asking.

Anyway, Dave had several things working for him and against Conan Tuesday night. First, Conan was stuck with an NHL playoff coverage lead-in -- not a big household draw. And, over on ABC, NBA Finals prime-time play wound up running until around midnight on the East Coast. Conan's show, of course, starts at 11:35 p.m.; NBA Finals presumably attract a lot of young guys -- young guys are Conan's target audience.

Nielsen is scheduled to put out final national numbers today for Conan's first week hosting "Tonight Show." NBC will then issue a news release touting the success of Conan's first week.

NBC has said, often, that the task of changing late-night hosts is a marathon, not a sprint, and that it expects Letterman to win his share of nights in household ratings. But, NBC has pointed out, Conan's strength lies with 18-to-49-year-old and 18-to-34-year-old viewers, and NBC insists that winning those age brackets is the better business plan. Overnight household numbers are not a true indicator of how the shows are performing from a business standpoint. In 21 of the country's markets with people meters (technology that provides overnight demographic information), Conan has a decisive lead among 18-to-49-year-olds, the network says.

On the other hand, Conan's second week copped early household ratings nowhere near "Tonight Show's" average, and his numbers have gotten weaker every night. It's tough to put up seven nights in which each night does a smaller number than the night before and claim a show is doing really well.

Anyway, the last time Dave beat "Tonight Show" in the early overnight numbers was on Oct. 16 and 17 of '08. The former is the night Sen. John McCain came on Dave's show to kiss and make up for having canceled on Dave at the last minute to do an interview instead with Katie Couric for CBS's evening newscast. Leno, NBC's "Tonight Show" host at that time, had Sen. Joe Biden as his guest that night. On Oct. 17, Dave's guest was Tina Fey, which doesn't scream "ratings win" -- but Dave was the beneficiary of a boatload of press that day after his McCain reconciliation.

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MTV finally got around to confirming what we've known for ages: the 23rd season of "The Real World" will explore the finer points of binge drinking and friends-with-benefits in our fair city of Washington, D.C.

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