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The Conan factor

O’Brien’s new 11 p.m. cable show may siphon young viewers from NBC

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By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / November 6, 2010

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Comedian Jay Leno’s return to “The Tonight Show’’ helped restore the show’s lead in ratings, but Leno hasn’t regained some of the younger viewers Conan O’Brien attracted when he hosted the show briefly last year.

That leaves an opening for O’Brien, who will be jockeying for these viewers that advertisers covet with his new late-night comedy show, “Conan,’’ which premieres at 11 p.m. Monday on cable channel TBS.

“Conan O’Brien is already a proven success, as shown by his many years in late-night television,’’ said Michael Wright, executive vice president, head of programming for TNT, TBS, and Turner Classic Movies, in an e-mailed statement. “He comes to TBS with a seasoned team and a large, well-established fan base.’’

“The Tonight Show’’ is up 43 percent in overall viewers since Jay Leno returned for this fall TV season, compared to last year when O’Brien was hosting. But the show is down about 9.6 percent to 1.2 million viewers ages 18-49, the group that advertisers seek in late night, according to the Nielsen Co.

“The Tonight Show’’ and “Conan’’ won’t directly compete. O’Brien’s program will start a little over a half-hour earlier, airing at the same time that many NBC affiliates carry their 11 p.m. newscasts. “The Tonight Show’’ airs at 11:35 p.m.

But an 11 p.m. show hosted by a popular former NBC personality such as O’Brien could swipe younger viewers from network affiliates’ newscasts, which are still trying to recapture some of their lost audience when Leno, an Andover native, hosted his short-lived variety show at 10 p.m. last year.

“This is going to be a major daily, first-run show run by an established star with a big fan base,’’ said Robert Thompson, a television professor at Syracuse University. “That has to make the local affiliates a little nervous.’’

Brian Lawlor, senior vice president of television at E.W. Scripps Co. and chairman of the NBC affiliates board, was unavailable yesterday, but said in a recent report about Leno’s ratings, “We had hoped that in his return to the time period that he would recapture all of his audience, but that hasn’t happened.’’

Last year, O’Brien replaced Leno as host of “The Tonight Show’’ when Leno moved to a prime-time slot at 10 p.m. But after seven months of smaller ratings and complaints from NBC affiliates about their late news numbers being hurt, NBC announced it was bringing Leno back to late night and making room for O’Brien at midnight. O’Brien refused and negotiated his exit from the network.

Officials at WHDH-TV (Channel 7), Boston’s NBC affiliate, complained about Leno’s weak ratings in prime time last year, but the 11 p.m. news ratings grew among 25-54 year-old viewers last March after NBC reinstalled Leno to the “Tonight Show’’ and replaced his “The Jay Leno Show’’ with a reality show and scripted dramas.

But WHDH’s 11 p.m. newscast has since fallen back to third place this fall in total viewers with 95,000, and 46,000 among viewers ages 25-54. WCVB-TV (Channel 5) has been leading in both audiences.

The reasons for the rating declines may have to do with NBC’s lackluster new prime-time programming, which serves as a lead-in for WHDH’s late newscasts. NBC has already canceled two new series, “Undercovers’’ and “Outlaw’’, which had been a lead-in to the 11 p.m. newscast, due to low ratings. Last month in Boston, only one NBC series, “The Office,’’ ranked among the most watched prime-time shows, at 26th, with 239,000 viewers. Nationally, NBC’s most recent highest-rated program was “Sunday Night Football’’ with 18 million viewers.

WHDH’s decline at 11 p.m. may also have to do with the absence of the station’s main evening anchor, Frances Rivera, who has been on maternity leave since late August. Chris Wayland, WHDH’s general manager, declined to comment yesterday.

WJAR-TV (Channel 10), the NBC affiliate in Providence, has recovered enough ratings in its 11 p.m. newscast to win in that time slot after losing that ranking last year. Still, “It has taken us a year to get back on track and neither NBC prime [time], WJAR late news or ‘The Tonight Show’ have fully recovered,’’ said Lisa Churchville, the station’s general manager.

O’Brien’s show may hinder that recovery. The red-haired, Brookline native’s show is expected to be similar to his previous NBC show. There will be a monologue, celebrity guests, and his longtime sidekick Andy Richter. O’Brien’s first night’s guests include actors Seth Rogen and Lea Michele with musical guest Jack White.

“Conan’’ will join a crowded late-night talk show landscape on both broadcast and cable networks. NBC’s “The Tonight Show’’ leads the pack with 3.6 million total viewers this fall season. CBS’s “The Late Show with David Letterman’’ is second with 3.5 million viewers. There’s also Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show’’ hosted by Jon Stewart, which draws about 2 million viewers. Among viewers 18-49, Stewart’s show led in that category last month for the first time, followed by Leno.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.