The news last week that Conan O'Brien was going to host a show on TBS starting in November was met with a ton of talk about late-night TV. But amid all the chatter, almost nothing was said about Jay Leno and his move back to late night on NBC — the action that sent O'Brien off on his journey to the land of basic cable.
Could it have been just a few shorts months ago that the news media were filled with nonstop talk about the "Leno Factor" and how it was "killing" the late news on top-notch NBC affiliates across the country, including WBAL in Baltimore?
Well, the Leno Factor is being undone. The lantern-jawed comedian might be old, bland and boring to some, but he is once again the king of late-night TV after only six weeks back in that time period. Meanwhile, the late news on NBC affiliates like WBAL is on the rise again, thanks in part to less disastrous lead-ins from the network.
"I kind of wondered if you were going to revisit the story now that things are going better," Jordan Wertlieb, the general manager of WBAL, said this week with some understatement. As a member of the NBC affiliates board, Wertlieb spent much of the fall at ground zero as NBC and the affiliates tried to dig and negotiate their way out of the Leno prime-time debacle.
Wertlieb is right: Things are going much better. Nationally, whereas O'Brien was finishing way behind David Letterman (CBS) and "Nightline (ABC), Leno's "Tonight Show" is now in first place again. And that's not just in overall viewership. That's also true in the key demographics of 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 years of age.
For the week of April 5, the most recent national Nielsen ratings available, Leno had an audience of 4.2 million viewers vs. 3.67 million each for Letterman and "Nightline."
Leno also had 1.45 million viewers 18 to 49 years of age, along with 1.75 million in the 25-to-54 age group. Despite all the talk about Leno being old and Las Vegas-bland in his humor, while O'Brien is young and supposedly "hip," Leno always had more young viewers than O'Brien.
And the rising tide reaches into Baltimore, where Letterman was beating O'Brien in January by a margin of 17,000 adults (47,000 to 30,000). Now, Leno and Letterman are tied in Charm City with 41,000 adult viewers each.
And best of all for WBAL, with the help of better lead-ins on NBC from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., the station's late news is up to 88,000 adults — only 8,000 behind WJZ, Baltimore's CBS-owned station, for a strong second-place finish.
In January, before Leno's return to late night, the gap between WJZ and WBAL was 33,000 viewers. The decades-long, back-and-forth struggle between these two stations for leadership in late news looks to be on again — and that kind of competition usually makes for better newscasts.
"We're obviously pleased that NBC is providing us with a better lead-in and a backstop with the programming change," Wertlieb said. "We are very happy with the marked improvement from 10 p.m. through late night. The ‘Tonight' Show's' immediate return to No. 1 clearly shows America considers Jay Leno the undisputed leader in late night."
Maybe the undisputed leader in late night for now, but what about the future, critics ask. Wasn't O'Brien the future for NBC, and didn't that struggling network throw it away — to the great advantage of TBS?
This critic says that for all the talk by TBS executives about age and young demographics, the most crucial and often overlooked fact about O'Brien's move is that he will be going head to head with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert on Comedy Central.
The young, hip, late-night TV audience is a relatively small one of probably no more than 2.5 million a night. If I was betting on young, hip and cutting-edge Monday through Friday, my money would be on Stewart and Colbert, not O'Brien, who already failed once to attract that audience when he was at NBC.
And given the revolutionary changes in lifestyle and media technology now taking place, who's thinking of long-term, future late-night hosts anyway? Maybe a short-term guy near the end of his career, like Leno, is the better idea. At least, that seems to be a serious consideration on the part of executives like Wertlieb.
"I will tell you that one of the other challenges of all the late news and late-night shows around the country is people tend to be getting up earlier in the morning these days because of commuting times," Wertlieb says. "And therefore, we are now challenged in not only competing with other channels and stations. We're challenged with competing with the pillow, with sleep, as people go to bed earlier. We're seeing early-morning viewing continuing to go up — with some stations around the country recently starting 4:30 a.m. newscasts."
Maybe it's not good night to either Jay or Dave, or "Nightline" or Conan. Maybe what we're seeing in all the late-night drama is the end of a broadcasting era.