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It's All Letterman in First Four Nights of Late-Night War


David 4, Jay O.

That was the score as of Friday for the first four nights of the head-to-head rivalry between late-night hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno--a week that saw Leno's audience decline notably, according to national Nielsen figures released by CBS and NBC.

On Thursday, Letterman attracted 20% of the available viewers and a 6.3 rating, while Leno drew 12% of viewers and a 3.8 rating. Each point represents 942,000 households.

Executives at both networks had expected that "Late Show With David Letterman" would score victories over NBC's Leno in the first week of his CBS talk show, which airs against "The Tonight Show" at 11:35 p.m.

But the damage seemed to be deeper for Leno. His ratings during the week, which ranged from a high of 4.1 on Monday to a low of 3.5 on Tuesday, were pointedly below his normal weekly average of 4.4.

Though Letterman's numbers also dropped steadily from his premiere on Monday, when he attracted 32% of the available audience to Leno's 11 share, his victory over his rival during the first week was still decisive.

The low point for Leno came on Tuesday when he received the poorest rating for a regularly scheduled "Tonight Show" since he took over from Johnny Carson in May, 1992.

Leno, whose guests were Christian Slater and Harry Connick Jr., attracted only 10% of the available audience and a 3.5 rating. On the same evening, Letterman, with guests Robin Williams and John Mellencamp, drew 25% of the audience and an 8.3 rating.

On Wednesday, Leno managed a little better, drawing 12% of viewers. Letterman attracted 23%.

David Poltrack, senior vice president of research and planning for CBS, said Friday that Letterman was clearly attracting young viewers, which he said was the desired demographic of late-night.

"When the dust settles, it's clear that 'The Tonight Show' audience will be lower and older because of the dominance of David Letterman with younger viewers," Poltrack said.

Poltrack also said a Nielsen study commissioned by CBS revealed that viewers were not jumping back and forth between "Late Show" and "The Tonight Show," as some experts had predicted. "There wasn't any grazing," he said. "Those who tuned in to one show stayed with that show."

Still, NBC officials maintained they were pleased with Leno's performance so far against Letterman.

"We were expecting lots of sampling of Dave's show," said a spokesperson. "We think it's exciting that so many viewers are tuning in to late-night television. We're in this for the long haul with Jay."

The late-night competition will grow even fiercer next week when Chevy Chase premieres Tuesday with his Fox talk show and Arsenio Hall returns from a week of repeats with new editions of his syndicated show. "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," NBC's replacement for Letterman, will enter the fray Sept. 13.

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