Will David Letterman's Audience -- and Advertisers -- Have Fidelity?

Rash Report: By Breaking the Story Himself, He Controlled the News Narrative

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- David Letterman may have a little explaining to do at home. But in America's households, his on-air explanation has probably already contained whatever damage has been done.

David Letterman
David Letterman Credit: CBS
Sure, some of David Letterman's audience and advertisers may be disappointed. But it's unlikely to cost him many of either. Because, by choosing to handle an unfortunate situation with the proper authorities, and by breaking the story himself, he controlled the news narrative. And while it may not make him a sympathetic figure, it makes him a more human one, which contrasts with his usual portrayal as a more remote, icy figure.

Because the bombshell was a media rarity -- unexpected and thus un-hyped -- it's unlikely that it added any more viewers. But, at least in that part of his professional life, it's been one of the best weeks in years for the late-night host.

For the most recent week with full Nielsen numbers available, CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" not only beat Conan O'Brien's "Tonight Show" in total viewers -- with "Letterman's" audience of just over five million well beyond "Tonight's" weekly average of just about 2.4 million -- but it won with ad-centric adults 18-49 as well. "Letterman" averaged a 1.3/5 rating and share, ahead of "Tonight's" 1.0/4.

And even with the younger viewers who might be expected to be hip to Conan's more post-modern approach to late night chat, it's a draw, as each averaged a .8/4 with adults 18-34. Their parents, however, overwhelmingly preferred David Letterman, who doubled Conan's 1.1/4 adult 35-64 rating and share with a commanding 2.3/9.

To be fair, David Letterman had a running mate to help run up his numbers, as President Barack Obama sat down after Dave's stand-up monologue. But Letterman's leap past Conan is the culmination of a steady rejection of many former "Tonight Show" viewers after NBC announced its former host, Jay Leno, would jump to primetime.

Last season's average for "The Tonight Show" was a 1.4/6. In June it jumped to a 1.7/7 as the media hype surrounding Conan's debut drove demos higher. But in July it settled to a 1.0/5 and has settled at a 1.1/5 for both August and September.

"The Late Show With David Letterman," conversely, had a small June swoon, dropping to a .8/3 average, which was down from last season's 1.0/4. It held there in July, dropped to a .7/3 in August, but rebounded to a .9/4 in September.

Of course, just as Jay Leno has found out, one week does not a season make. Just as a big "get" got "Letterman" a rise in ratings, Conan, too, could become water-cooler talk. But part of the challenge may be that those who choose NBC for an appearance may naturally gravitate towards "The Jay Leno Show" due to its primetime platform.

But that's the least of Conan's problems. Indeed, his week started with him hitting his head during an on-air stunt. It ended with his demos taking a header, too.

Of course, David Letterman's fall is of a different sort. And only time will tell how much fidelity his viewers have after he admitted his affairs.

Friday: The cable kabuki theater, in which some of the same talking heads who criticized the presidential precedent set with Barack Obama pitching Chicago's bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics will now hound him for his hometown's humiliation, as Chicago was eliminated in the first round of voting.
Saturday: OK, so we didn't get the Olympics. But don't reject sports globalism! Instead embrace it, as the internationalized National Hockey League opens with the Chicago Blackhawks playing the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, followed by the Detroit Red Wings dropping the puck against the St. Louis Blues in Stockholm. Both run on Versus.
Sunday: "Three Rivers," which has its primetime premiere on CBS Sunday night, isn't likely to inspire Emmy voters, at least based on the pilot. But if "Three Rivers" inspires one person to become an organ donor, it's worth it.

Week two of "The Cleveland Show." Can it hold its audience?

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.

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