Letterman vs. O’Brien: A Ratings Timeline

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One of the most talked about television events in recent weeks has been Conan O’Brien’s takeover of the Tonight Show on NBC. The big question surrounding the move: Will Conan be able to retain and grow Jay Leno’s audience, or will he lose viewers to CBS’ The Late Show with David Letterman? Read on for a timeline tracing how they’ve both fared so far, and find out what the talking heads predict for the future…

June 1st- Conan’s Tonight Show premieres to a huge audience, larger than those of Nightline and The Late Show combined.

June 2nd through 9th- Conan continues to beat Letterman in the ratings, but as the week goes on the gap between him and Letterman gets smaller and smaller.

June 10th- For the first time, Letterman beats Conan in the ratings. This stirs up quite a bit of hub-bub, seeing as Leno almost always beat Letterman in the ratings, unless Letterman had a particularly good guest — in fact, the last time Letterman beat the Tonight Show was in October 2008, when he booked both John McCain and Tina Fey on his show.

June 11th to June 15th- Letterman beats Conan again. And again. And again. Uh oh…

June 15th and June 16th- Despite Letterman’s high profile/buzzy apology to Sarah Palin over his Bristol comment, Conan beats him, but only in the 18-49 demographic.

June 17th- No word yet on the overnight ratings, but let it be noted that Conan had William Shatner on as his guest last night… Here are our predictions for what will come next…

REASONS WHY LETTERMAN COULD PREVAIL: He’s established. He’s been going along solidly in the 11:35 p.m. time slot for years now, and Conan’s takeover of the Tonight Show may send some Leno fans his way. In addition, Conan seems to be more of an acquired taste that takes some getting used to. If Letterman can hook some new viewers before they have a chance to adjust to Conan’s style, he might be able to hang on to them. Also, Leno returning to TV at 10 p.m. this fall may be good for Letterman, because many predict that Jay will score a lot of Conan’s potential guests, leaving O’Brien with only B and C-listers.

REASONS WHY CONAN COULD PREVAIL: He managed to develop a pretty large following over the 15 years he was in the 12:35 a.m. time slot, and may be able to do the same at 11:35 p.m., once people get used to his quirky brand of humor. In addition, NBC hopes he’ll be able to draw some younger viewers to the 11:35 p.m. time slot, and keep them there.

Personally, we’d like to see them duke it out on Celebrity Deathmatch, old-school style. What do you think will happen? Do you even care?