NBC's Late-Night Ratings Tumble in Wake of Writers Walkout

'Tonight Show,' 'SNL' off Double Digits for First Week of Strike

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC's late-night schedule may be the first real victim of the ongoing writers strike, with viewership among advertisers' most-coveted audiences -- viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 -- down in the double-digits for both "The Tonight Show" and "Saturday Night Live," according to media buyers.
The Tonight Show
The Tonight Show Credit: Margaret Norton

For repeats of "Tonight," live ratings are off 20% for audiences between the ages of 18 and 49 between the week of Oct. 29 to Nov. 5, and down 17% for audiences between the ages of 25 to 54, said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of video research at Publicis Groupe's Starcom Worldwide. For "SNL," ratings in those categories are off 33% and 35%, respectively, he said.

Viewership among audiences between 18 and 49 is down 9% for repeats of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat.

The first battleground
Late-night TV has developed into the first battleground in a strike by the Writers Guild of America. The labor action started Nov. 5, largely over issues related to DVD sales and compensation for work that is used online and in other digital venues. Because programs including "Tonight," "Late Night" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" play off the news and events of the day, they need to be crafted -- by writers -- fresh each day they air. All the big late-night talk shows are airing reruns.

The longer the strike continues, media buyers say, the fewer original episodes of programs networks will have to offer and the more ratings will decline. Pressure from advertisers will also grow for so-called make goods, or return of money paid for ad time because ratings expectations were not met, or, simply, for return of the cash put down.

"One week does not a story make," said Carat's Ms. Brill. "But it's not great."

Other late-night programs appear to be holding their own. CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" saw a 1% decline in audiences between the ages of 18 and 49, said Ms. Brill, while ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" is down 3% in the same category. CBS's "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" is flat.

Leno's steeper drop
Media buyers are hard pressed to determine why "Tonight" is suffering more than its rivals, although it does regularly trump its competitors in the ratings, and, as such, might have more to lose. Or, because of the reruns, Leno regulars now have more reason to sample elsewhere. Starcom's Mr. Armando theorized that "Tonight" host Jay Leno has been seen on TV supporting strikers, turning himself into a walking advertisement for the fact that original episodes of his show are not available. "I haven't seen Ferguson or Letterman or Kimmel anywhere in the news," he said.

Some late-night hangouts are bringing in more customers. ABC's venerable "Nightline" has seen audiences between 18 and 49 increase 15% -- owing, no doubt, to the fact that it can keep current on events. More surprising, perhaps, audiences between the ages of 18 and 49 are up 9% for "Last Call With Carson Daly," which airs on NBC between 1:35 a.m. and 2:05 a.m. Monday through Friday, Ms. Brill said.

Those relative successes offer little reason to cheer. Starcom's Mr. Armando estimates that overall TV usage in late night is off 4%, while the percentage of people between 18 and 49 watching TV during the time period is off 5%. A 4% to 5% change in those figures is "pretty significant," he added.
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