Both programs have aired two months' worth of repeats since the strike began. As of the start of last week, "Leno" ratings had fallen 34% by households and 40% by audience in the 18-to-49 demographic coveted by advertisers. "Late Night" had fallen 31.6% by households and 36.4% by audience 18 to 49, according to Aegis Group's Carat.
"Considering the ratings losses they've had, I think they are badly needed," said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of programming at Carat. "NBC is among the hardest hit."
Since the strike began Nov. 5 over issues related to payment for content that runs online, late night has been the hardest-hit daypart. Buyers have complained that ads from their clients are not reaching as many people as they might have if original programs were airing. Late-night talk shows are extremely topical and lose some if not all of their allure if a prolonged series of repeats takes to the airwaves.
At CBS, drops in late night are still significant but not so severe. "The Late Show With David Letterman" has fallen 18.6% in households and 21.4% in viewers aged 18 to 49. "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" has fallen 13.3% in viewers and 14.3% in the 18-to-49 category.
While statements released today by Messrs. Leno and O'Brien make it clear they are reluctant to return to the air without their writers, what's not clear is whether the programs will be able to reach their previous level of quality. "Of course my show will not be as good," Mr. O'Brien said in a statement. "In fact, in moments it may very well be terrible." Both hosts said they would return to the air rather than face the prospect of having their large staffs laid off.
Media buyers divided
Media buyers seem divided on the issue. "I think viewers will definitely return -- particularly when there are strong guests," said Steve Sternberg, exec VP-audience analysis for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global. He said audience levels should return "to about where they would be if there was no strike." Others are not so certain. "The sad thing I think we'll be missing are a lot of the jokes about the coming election," said Carat's Ms. Brill. "I don't know who is better on their feet with regard to that without writers."
With NBC ready to bring its late-night programming back on air, CBS may not be far behind -- though the Tiffany Network may have to allow its famous talk-show host to broker his own deal. Worldwide Pants, the David Letterman production company that owns both programs, is hoping to negotiate "an interim agreement that would allow us to go back to work with our writers" with the Writers Guild of America, said spokesman Tom Keaney.