The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Friday, June 04, 2004

LETTERMAN VS LENO

Slate's Bryan Curtis tries to develop an explanation for why Letterman consistently loses to Leno in the ratings. His thesis?
...Dave's show -- because of his heart surgery, his age, his new baby, whatever -- has become a syrupy facsimile of Leno's. Guests trot on to plug their latest projects. Mild comedy follows the monologue. Given Tonight's inherent advantages -- the franchise name, the vestigial shadow of Carson -- it takes an extraordinarily heartwarming event for Letterman just to make a dent in the ratings. Indeed, Dave's few victories usually involve one of his comebacks from a gruesome surgery. After his quintuple bypass in 2000, Dave made a gallant return five weeks later, choking back tears as he introduced his team of doctors. The episode beat Tonight in the ratings and went on to become one of Dave's highest-rated shows ever. Last spring, Letterman sat on the bench for five weeks while recovering from the shingles, and when he returned, interest spiked again. But within days, viewers had fled back to the Tonight Show.
I don't think this is quite right. Dave's comeback episodes don't get high ratings because they're schmaltzy, they get high ratings because they're comeback episodes! Everyone loves a comeback. Furthermore, when Dave has a highly relevant guest -- Hillary, for example -- he is often able to beat Jay in the ratings. Part of the reason is because of Letterman's eccentricities as an interviewer: People are prone to wonder "what is Dave gonna say to her?", and that doesn't really happen with Leno.

Look, I'll save you the time you would have otherwise spent reading Curtis' piece. The reason Jay Leno consistently beats Letterman in the Nielsen ratings, and has for the last 9 years, is simple: The monologue. Jay's monologue is long -- it often exceeds ten minutes -- and it covers most of the relevant news stories of the day. It is certain that for many people, Leno serves as their primary news source. Not a huge amount of people, but certainly enough to make a difference in the Nielsen ratings. Jay's delivery of monologue jokes is highly consistent:
Sentence describing a news story that may well have been yanked right out of an AP write-up.

1.5 second pause.

Quickly delivered punchline, usually making light of how boring John Kerry is or how sleazy Bill Clinton is.

Kevin Eubanks slowly chuckles. If the joke is drug-related, Leno nods knowingly at the band.
Meanwhile, over at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Letterman's monologue is just as it always has been: Three, maybe four jokes, often New-York-centric (rats, hookers, etc), followed by the introduction of Paul Shaffer. If I were a stuck-up liberal -- hey, I am! -- then I'd say that Dave respects his audience enough to believe that they wouldn't use him as their primary source of news.

Dave's fans eat this up like hot cakes. But there are no guarantees that it will work well for others, particularly those that are stuck in traffic during the 5 and 6 o'clock hours, and really aren't ones for AM radio news.

That's why Jay beats Dave consistently. It has nothing to do with sappiness.

UPDATE: I copied the bulk of this entry and posted it in The Fray over at Slate, in response to the article itself, and my post received one response, from a MatthewGarth, and it made a couple of interesting points:
Leno's move to the long monologue came at a point when they decided--obviously rightly--that there was no appetite for the desk bit anymore. Letterman didn't want to follow along, and has been paying for it.

They've also been coasting. When Conan came on the air, he sucked. But they tried really damn hard. When Jon Stewart took over for Kilborn, no one knew how much fixing that show needed. Flash forward to today, and Kilborn is wallowing (effortlessly) and Stewart and his minions are cranking through the culture.

A midwesterner like Dave should know the value of hard work. He needs to rediscover his inner tyrant and demand more.
Hmm. I think I speak for a more-than-insignificant population when I say, "Hey! I love desk bits!"

I think it's not as much a matter of the unpopularity of the desk bit as it is the popularity of Leno's long, news-based monologue. Any fan of Conan -- which I definitely am -- knows that the tone of his show is really set by the desk bit. So it's not the bit in and of itself. Perhaps Dave's desk bits have grown stale and tired over the years. But I don't think that's quite it either.

My theory is that Dave more or less hasn't changed, it's just that the contrast between him and Carson -- a plain vanilla prude WASP -- is different from that between him and Leno, who does manage, to some extent, to bridge the gap between the older late-night viewers and the all-important 18-29ers. Suddenly Dave isn't the edgy alternative, he's Dave.

Dave will always be the more naturally funny person -- Dave talking about anything is potentially funny -- but his show requires, at least for ratings, a status as the edgy alternative.

I'm sure there's a lot more I could say, but I'll stop there for now.

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