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 strike.
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 as O'Brien.
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 to another.
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)