David Letterman's Late Show earned higher ratings than Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show for the first time last night, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The numbers and some context:
On the seventh day of Letterman vs. O'Brien, CBS earned a 3.4 metered-market household rating to NBC's 2.9. "Late Show" was also up 13% from last week and 17% from last year.
Letterman had Julia Roberts and Black Eyed Peas as guests; O'Brien had Eddie Murphy, Angela Kinsey and Bonnie Raitt.
The ratings gap between the hosts has been narrowing nearly ever night since O'Brien took control of the "Tonight" franchise. The last time "Late Show" topped Jay Leno's "Tonight" was eight months ago.
What does it mean? Clearly the late-night ground has shifted a bit. Letterman could never consistently beat his old friend-turned-rival Jay Leno. Maybe now O'Brien—whose ratings have consistently but understandably dropped since his premiere—will have to play the underdog role. And he might have to play it for a while, if the rumors of Letterman's contract being extended through 2012 are true. That doesn't really mean that O'Brien should worry too much. He's eased into the Tonight Show role well and is no doubt viewed as a long-term investment by NBC.
And what does it mean for viewers? That's a bit tougher. Letterman vs. Leno presented a clear-cut battle between inventiveness and, well, Jaywalking. Letterman vs. O'Brien is more like an Oedipal struggle between a man who pioneered a iconoclastic approach to the comedic talk show and a man who clearly looked to him for inspiration. It's harder to have a rooting interest—both are great at what they do—but maybe by losing a nightly struggle between good and evil we've gained a chance to see if honest competition makes for better comedy. At any rate, it's nice to have a DVR these days.