| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES It may not be enough to make NBC
reconsider putting Jay Leno out to late-night pasture next
year, but his designated successor, Conan O'Brien, just
suffered a notable ratings defeat at the hands of his own CBS
rival, Craig Ferguson.
For the first time ever, the CBS "Late Late Show with Craig
Ferguson" topped NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" during a
full, five-night week of original head-to-head broadcasts
ending April 4, Nielsen Media Research reported on Thursday.
Scottish-born Ferguson, who follows the "Late Show with
David Letterman" on CBS, averaged 1.88 million total viewers
for the week, compared with 1.77 million for O'Brien in the
hour immediately after NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,"
according to Nielsen.
Still, there is no evidence that Ferguson is gaining ground
on O'Brien by building his audience over the long term.
To the contrary, Ferguson's bigger accomplishment seems to
be that he has merely lost fewer viewers this season, with his
total audience slipping 12 percent from a year ago, compared
with a 24 percent drop for O'Brien.
Late-night TV ratings in general have hit a slump this
season, in large part because of the toll taken by the writers
Leno remains firmly planted at No. 1 at 11:30 p.m. ahead of
Letterman, but compared to last year he trails his own
viewership performance season-to-date by about the same measure
The situation would seem to be cold comfort for NBC
executives who announced in September 2004 that O'Brien would
take over from Leno as star of "The Tonight Show" in 2009 in a
succession plan aimed at smoothing the transition from one host
Leno was named "Tonight Show" host in 1992 when Johnny
Carson retired, sparking a public feud with Letterman, NBC's
then-"Late Night" star and Carson heir apparent.
Letterman ended up defecting the following year to CBS and
going head-to-head against Leno. Letterman initially beat Leno
in the ratings, but Leno ultimately prevailed in the Nielsen
war and has remained on top ever since.
Leno is reported to be privately unhappy about his planned
"Tonight Show" exit, and rival networks are said to be quietly,
unofficially courting him with offers to come work for them
once his NBC contract is up.
NBC executives have said they are looking at various
options for keeping Leno in the network fold, including a
possible move to prime time.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)