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Letterman Makes Inroads on ‘Tonight’ Turf

Last month, after Conan O'Brien had finished his first week as Tonight Show host, NBC pronounced him "the new king of late-night."

But the picture is much fuzzier, and the brag proved premature. Six weeks later, it's CBS' Late Show With David Letterman that's now winning the talk-show race.

And for three weeks ending July 10, ABC's Nightline has beaten both, thanks to Michael Jackson news and channel-surfing by older fans of O'Brien's predecessor, Jay Leno.

After a big start (7.1 million viewers for the debut), O'Brien fell sharply: For the week ending July 10 (the latest available), Letterman had 3.7 million viewers, O'Brien 2.8 million. That's Tonight's lowest weekly total and a turnabout from Leno, who mostly led Letterman since 1995.

"I tried Conan after Jay left but just can't get into his brand of humor," says David Greer of Frankfort, Ky. "My wife and I now go to sleep at 11 p.m. I've never felt more rested."

O'Brien, in exchange, has lured more men ages 18 to 34 than Leno had, partly from Letterman, Adult Swim and syndicated comedies, and has a 4-1 advantage in that group.

Michael Ritchason, 31, of Pekin, Ill., says he "never watched Leno" but has seen "a lot more episodes of The Tonight Show now with Conan at the helm. I'm glad Conan's getting the attention he deserves."

Overall, O'Brien's audience is down 11% from Leno's last summer, Letterman is up 9% and Nightline grew 14%. Letterman is also closing the gap among ages 18 to 49, advertisers' primary target, where O'Brien still leads.

"With the exception of men 18 to 34, the Late Show is going to be the leader when the dust settles, we're confident of that," says CBS research chief David Poltrack.

Letterman got a boost last week: Wednesday's Paul McCartney show drew 4.4 million viewers to Tonight's 2.5 million, in preliminary figures. With last week factored in, Letterman has beaten O'Brien for three of the past four weeks. And Late Show (but not its NBC rivals) won an Emmy nomination for best variety series.

NBC late-night chief Rick Ludwin says he's happy with O'Brien's performance and believes Leno's return in prime time Sept. 14 "is going to help us" in late-night. "There's not panic in the streets here," he says. "We judge them over the long haul."

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