When Letterman head writer Bill Scheft was in Toronto a few weeks ago he predicted that, when the dust settled in late night and the Tonight hand off was complete, his boss would be in the driver’s seat. “Usually the show that changes the least benefits the most,” he said.
That seems to be the case just two weeks into Conan O’Brien’s run as host of The Tonight Show. While it is summer and ratings are all over the map, the enormous boost O’Brien got from those first few nights of Tonight seems to have slipped away.
Letterman beat O’Brien head-to-head for the first time Tuesday night, as Dave fave Julia Roberts guested on Late Show. That followed a close second showing the night before as Howard Stern–always good for a ratings boost–gave Letterman a hearty endorsement. “I’ll do anything you want as long as we beat Conan!” Stern said on the show, mentioning that Dave’s staff thought Stern’s visit would vault Letterman ahead of O’Brien (not quite). “I never liked Jay, I can’t stand Jay,” Stern cracks two thirds of the way though the following clip:

The ratings were tracked on Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily site, although, keep in mind Finke seems to have a personal hate on for NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker.
In terms of total households, Letterman beat O’Brien Tuesday night 3.4 to 2.8 in the overnight, estimated ratings. Things may tighten up when the final tally is in but that looks like a win.
Monday night it was Conan 3.1, Letterman/Stern 3.0. The week before, when O’Brien launched opposite Letterman repeats (a savvy scheduling move by NBC), O’Brien opened with a lofty 7.0, sliding night by night to 5.0, 4.2, 3.8 and 3.5.
As Finke gleefully points out, O’Brien went from the highest Monday night rating for Tonight in four years to the lowest-rated Friday in six months–all in the same week.
NBC quickly countered that O’Brien is “the new King of Late Night” and, as host of Tonight, is kicking Letterman’s CBS ass in the all-important 18-49 demo. Not in the NBC release–but a factor in this ratings battle–is that NBC’s current 10 p.m. slate is in tatters which CBS is dominant in the hour, tilting things Dave’s way.
None of this really matters all that much in the summer. The real late night war begins in September, when Jay Leno launches at 10 and then all hell breaks loose. At that point, audiences will really begin to shakeout and new alliances will be formed. But Scheft is probably right–the guy that didn’t change is looking pretty good right now.
Letterman also got a ratings lift this week thanks to Sarah Palin. The Alaska governor and former Republican vice presidential candidate took issue with some stinging jokes Letterman recently told in his monologue, a part of the show that is getting sharper and longer in recent weeks. The Palin’s were particularly upset over comments that seemed directed at their 14-year-old daughter. Letterman explained he was really goofing on the 18-year-old. Then he roasted Palin in the most damning apology ever. Read more about it here.

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