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Late night wars: beyond just Jay and Dave

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2002

It was so much easier when Johnny was around.

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Mr. Carson's departure from late-night television a decade ago prompted one of the biggest battles in the franchise's history, as Jay Leno and David Letterman fought over his seat on NBC's "The Tonight Show."

When Carson was at the helm, the other networks were unsuccessful in offering anything that could compete, with the exception of ABC. It tried something different in 1979 - a news program that eventually became "Nightline."

More than 20 years later, there are two dominant late-night comedy shows, cable channels galore. Network programmers are no longer satisfied pitting news against entertainment at bedtime.

The news last week that Disney-owned ABC had offered the hour occupied by "Nightline" and "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" to Mr. Letterman indicates that the latest late-night battle is driven not by a coveted seat, but a coveted demographic - and the bottom line.

"Late night is hip, sexy, and edgy, and people want a piece of that - ABC especially, right now," says Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

"Nightline" has been fending off Mr. Letterman for the last decade, ever since the comedian found out he was not the heir to the "Tonight Show." Most major networks, including ABC, tried to woo him then.

But the award-winning news program, with its respected anchor, Ted Koppel, has remained alive and competitive. It is typically No. 2 in the late-night - trailing Mr. Leno's "Tonight Show." In February, it had about the same number of viewers as Mr. Letterman - 4 million - but both trailed Leno, who attracted more than 6 million viewers.

In the current environment, though, raw numbers aren't necessarily what executives are interested in: It's who's watching. They covet more the young, Old Navy crowd than those whose first stop everyday is a newspaper.

TV's changing landscape

" 'Nightline' has a sizeable and valuable audience that is more than viable for most marketers. But in general it will not bring in more revenue than higher-rated rivals, particularly 'The Tonight Show,' " says John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell-Mithun, an advertising agency in Minneapolis.

But beyond the late-night dollars, traditional networks are facing a larger challenge in a market that has changed dramatically - thanks to corporate ownership and drops in ad revenue. Signs of that pressure are evident in how quickly new programs are pulled if they don't perform well, and moves like NBC's recent decision to lift a 50-year ban on hard-liquor ads.

The tension between news and entertainment has also increased as a result. Decades ago when there were only three major networks, popular entertainment shows could help pay the way for their news counterparts. But today, news has to bring its own money to the table.

Many people have come to Mr. Koppel's defense, but even he has said he understands the corporate pressure his owners face. In an Opinion article in The New York Times this week, Koppel made his first public comments about the situation. Despite his concession to the bottom line, he defended "Nightline's" ability to get top ratings in times of crises, and pointed out that it has earned more than half-a-billion dollars for its owners over the years.