"The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" notched a milestone in its three-year-plus competish in the wee hours against NBC's long-dominant "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" by winning the week ended April 4 -- Ferguson averaged 1.88 million viewers for the frame to O'Brien's 1.77 million.
Not that latenight always has to be measured strictly a death-match, zero-sum game -- both Conan and Craig are very funny fellows indeed and viewers are well-served by their diverse styles -- but it is a competitive business and ratings are the yardstick by which ad sales and pop culture traction are measured.
NBC number crunchers noted that Ferguson got a big boost that week from the post-strike return of CBS' big scripted guns, the three "CSIs," "Without a Trace," "Criminal Minds" plus the circulation lift from the NCAA finals coverage, while NBC was still mostly in reruns.
Looking back over the past few weeks, however, the trend is interesting. "Late Late Show" has been making it a real horse race with "Late Night" of late, in spite of the latter's lead-in benefit from "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Indeed, Ferguson is more competitive with O'Brien than his 11:35 a.m. companion, "The Late Show with David Letterman" is with "Tonight Show" -- the berth O'Brien is to move up to in the fall of '09.
To wit, look at the landscape on Monday, March 25. In Nielsen's overnight metered markets, Leno averaged 3.7 rating/9 share in households to Letterman's 3.3/8. An hour later, Ferguson won the slot, by a thumbnail, with an average 1.6/6 to O'Brien's 1.5/5. Interesting to note, however, that the following night, March 26, Leno had a bigger lead over Letterman (4.0/10 vs. 2.1/5) and still, an O'Brien repeat topped a Ferguson original (1.7/6 vs. 1.1/4).
To me this all translates to, lead-ins matter, but Craig's got the big mo, no doubt about it. Some of us are on record for years now raving (in a good way) about his style, charm, observational humor and overall regular-dude-from-Glasgow personality that makes him seem like he was born to do this job for the Tiffany net. (Full disclosure: Ferguson was kind enough to have me on as a guest in February.) After all, nobody gets what makes America tick like an immigrant, right? Ferguson's gig later this month as host of the high-profile White House Correspondents Dinner can only help "The Late Late Show's" cause.
(The fact that Ferguson has Betty White on as a semi-regular guest for comedy bits has surely helped his cause to a nation of Betty White worshipers. Click here for a funny bit from last week regarding Betty and her income taxes.)
Last week, on the heels of Ferguson's first full-week win the previous week, "Late Late Show" still had wind at its back, even though "Late Show" aired reruns Tuesday-Thursday and start times for both of the Eye's latenighters were thrown off by delays from CBS coverage of NCAA championship bout and Masters golf tourney.
It was no surprise on Monday that Ferguson and O'Brien tied (1.7/6), given the ratings boost to CBS from Kansas' buzzer-beater victory over Memphis in the college hoops final. On Tuesday, however, coming out of a Letterman repeat (2.2/6), Ferguson caught up with O'Brien (1.8/6-tie) in spite of the much larger lead-in from an original Leno seg (4.1/10).