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Letterman vs. Leno - OnMedea

Letterman vs. Leno

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The Conan exit deal is done - probably the largest payout in television history for someone averaging a 2.5 rating.  It is presumed he will go to Fox and get a 2.0 rating at 11:00 (my guess is reruns of The Simpsons on local affiliates do better than that).

david_letterman_time_magazine_cover.jpgjay-leno-time-magazine-cover.jpgSo, with apologies to Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, George Lopez, Charlie Rose, etc., it comes down, once again, to Letterman vs. Leno

Who will win the ratings battle (long-term) once they resume head-to-head competition March 1, 2010?

It's very simple:
Jay Leno wins - without a doubt.

jay-leno-picture-1.jpgHere's why:

DEMOGRAPHICS:  Late night talk show viewers are not the Taco-Bell-eating slacker college students that most of these hosts think they're 'in touch with'.  That demo is watching The Daily Show, Colbert, Adult Swim or they're online or playing video games (maybe they're not consuming any media and are out pounding drinks and, God willing, conversing with the opposite sex).  So, older viewers are watching Jay and Dave - and older viewers prefer Jay.  It's warm and safe television with Headlines and JaywalkingDave is 'too edgy' for older America, even in his advanced years.

VACATION:  Jay is notorious for working 46-48 weeks a year.  Dave works... less than that.  Even if Dave wins the first few weeks after Jay returns in March (as expected), Jay will pick up viewers once Dave goes on his first long vacation.

WORK ETHIC:  While I am not doubting that Dave works very hard to put on his show four nights a week, Jay is indefatigable.  He always seems to be out with the public, doing stand-up, corporate events, car shows... almost anything the network asks him to do.  Jay has a high visibility factor that Dave... doesn't have.  (Not that you need that to succeed - Johnny Carson was a painfully shy recluse and did just fine.)  However, when you're trying to win back the hearts and minds of your viewers, being visible with "your public" can go a long way.

leno_at_comedy_store.jpgHISTORY:  Jay Leno has been a consistent ratings winner for 17 years.  Yes, bad press and public sentiment has damaged that but most of Jay's fans could care less about 'The Tonight Show' debacle (though, I think everyone would love to see Jeff Zucker get fired).

Finally, Jay spent 20 years in comedy clubs across the country before getting 'The Tonight Show' and he cut his teeth in that ruthless, back-stabbing world.  If he survived the shit that went on in those clubs, he can survive almost anything.

Dave did quite a bit of stand-up in the 1970s, yes, but never really immersed himself into that world.  Being a great comic was not on his radar.  He has always been perceived (as he wished) as a TV guy. 

Jay is a comic first and a TV guy next - which is why his fans keep watching - they simply want to hear jokes on 'The Tonight Show' told by a comic and not just a "funny person" doing bits.

jill_kennedy_small.jpgJill Kennedy - OnMedea

P.S. - Where were all these new Conan fans when he really needed them - over the summer when he started hosting The Tonight Show?  If he had the ratings then that he has now - there is no controversy.  Jay would be out and Conan would be in.

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Molly Glover said:

I think you're right, Jill. Leno will probably win the ratings race. I just don't really like him or the way this whole thing has been handled. I want to see Jeff Zucker fired also.

Hollywood Producer said:

Interesting take, Jill. I think they should just blow up the late night formula and start fresh once broadcast networks become basic cable networks.

Jim M said:

In defense of Conan, I am trying to remember how many ads NBC had for the Tonight Show. It seemed like they were plugging Leno all the time and he still failed but the advertising for Conan was ok at first and then dropped off the planet. Plus, Conan made the mistake of toning his stuff down. The last couple of weeks he has been much better. Granted, what are they going to do? Fire him?

One of the main reasons for trying Leno at 10 is because his older audience is starting to fall asleep before the 11:00 local news is over. Leno ties into the Baby Boomer demographic that is starting to fade when it comes to late night hours. Letterman has a niche; but some of his bitterness over the years (more so than him being edgy, something that has been in decline for him) just does not carry the day.

If Conan ends up on Fox and Fox promotes the show, I think he has a chance to challenge both Letterman and Leno by this time next year, assuming he starts in September. I use to watch Leno on the Tonight Show. I will avoid him now.

Jill Kennedy said:

Good points, Jim M. Plus, the late night market is so fragmented - being number one doesn't quite mean as much anymore. Jay could return to ratings in the upper 3s and still be number one. Even if he loses some viewers like you. Dave is a niche player which is why he has never really been a #1 kind of guy. Conan is the the same way. Jay plays more of a populist and it probably will work for him again.

GO COCO GO said:

Conan will do just fine. He doesn't need to win the late night battle because he will be on at a different time. So no one will judge him on whether he is competitive against Jay. It's a win win win for Conan.

I agree, I think Jay will win out, but the days of judging shows by ratings is going to be old news real soon. I pretty much watch most of my programming online (Hulu for TV, Netflix for movies, YouTube for music and oddities.) You can find most shows online (I wanted to see the third season of Mad Men and found a bootleg site that had the whole season there for free with no commercials) and kids aren't watching TV much anymore. Jimmy Fallon hit it on the head when he said he didn't care when he was on, because a large portion of his audience doesn't watch it in real time.

And personally, if I was Conan I would take the money and pull a Craig Kilborn and disappear and enjoy life.

Jill Kennedy said:

Great point, Marty. It's true. In a couple of years the model will be blown up completely. I don't necessarily think time shifting or online viewing is enough to move the needle too much right now - but it's definitely headed in that direction.

Love your website. Now that's the life. Keep on pukin'.


Thanks, Jill! I like your blog, I found it via Huffington Post. I'll bookmark it and keep checking back. Cheers!


Kelly Jobs said:

Being a blog writer myself, I really appreciate the time you took in wriitng this article. I am currently reading it on my Blackberry and will scan it once I get home.

Kasey Genous said:

lol, Letterman is so wild! I love him.

About Jill Kennedy

Jill Kennedy - Blogger - OnMedea Jill Kennedy is an Ivy League MBA / refugee from Lehman Brothers.

Manka Bros. (and the Manka Business Channel) hired her (for a very low sum) to cover the world of media (not the world of Medea) in her own words without corporate interference.

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About Medea

Medea Medea was a real bitch from classical mythology - as most famously dramatized by Euripides.

She was a sorceress and wife of Jason, whom she assisted in obtaining the Golden Fleece. When Jason deserted her, she chopped up their children. One could say, Medea acted as rationally as a major media company.


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