The late-night TV wars of 2011: Winners and losers

With late-night TV pretty much done for the year (everyone’s airing repeats or is pre-empted for holiday programming for next week’s final week of 2011), we can take a step back and see who’s doing well and who didn’t make it to year’s end.

How your favorite late-night talk show host fared is different depending upon how old you are and your gender.

Losing out in 2011 were George Lopez (TBS) and Mo’Nique (BET), both of whom saw their shows halt production over the summer. And the ratings bore that out, as they trailed the rest of the field by several hundred thousand viewers — Jay Leno’s Tonight Show drew more than seven times as many viewers than Lopez Tonight. But didn’t you hear chattering recently about how David Letterman had snuck up on Leno in the past couple of months and earned ratings victories?

Let’s take a look at the full year report for 2011.


  1. Tonight Show with Jay Leno 3,891,000
  2. Late Show with David Letterman 3,444,000
  3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart 2,261,000
  4. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon 1,827,000
  5. Jimmy Kimmel Live 1,759,000
  6. Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson 1,635,000
  7. The Colbert Report 1,514,000
  8. Chelsea Lately 1,016,000
  9. Conan 1,012,000
  10. The Monique Show 628,000
  11. Lopez Tonight 531,000

Letterman’s late surge wasn’t enough to overtake Leno for full-year bragging rights, but it’ll be interesting to see if Letterman continues his momentum into 2012. The post-midnight crowd is bunched together closely, with Fallon, Kimmel and Ferguson not far apart. And those numbers for Conan. Oof. TBS really needs to start slotting some good programming in front of and around Team Coco. Or as I suggested back in August, maybe TBS shouldn’t be trying to compete with itself and sister station Adult Swim for the same exact demographic?!? 

AGES 18-49

  1. The Daily Show 1,284,000
  2. Tonight Show 1,232,000
  3. Late Show 1,121,000
  4. The Colbert Report 930,000
  5. Late Night 814,000
  6. Conan 736,000
  7. (tie) Chelsea Lately 718,000 Jimmy Kimmel Live 718,000
  8. Late Late Show 669,000
  9. Lopez Tonight 350,000
  10. The Monique Show 316,000

In a repeat from May sweeps, Jon Stewart just barely outpoints Leno to jump into the top spot in the big ad-spending money demo (although they’re both down a smidge). Stephen Colbert also leaps up several spots, proving that Comedy Central has a stronghold in the 11 o’clock hour.

Now let’s drill down deeper and see how what the kids are watching, and break that down by gender.

MEN 18-34

  1. Jon Stewart 466,000
  2. Stephen Colbert 378,000
  3. Conan O’Brien 283,000
  4. Jay Leno 174,000
  5. David Letterman 161,000
  6. Jimmy Fallon 148,000
  7. George Lopez 126,000
  8. Craig Ferguson 117,000
  9. Jimmy Kimmel 104,000
  10. Chelsea Handler 102,000
  11. Mo’Nique 64,000

Big win for Comedy Central, as well as for Conan. Surprised that Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t fare as well with young men. Sorry, ladies. But will we flip the script when we look at…

WOMEN 18-34

  1. Chelsea Handler 325,000
  2. Jay Leno 234,000
  3. Jon Stewart 229,000
  4. Conan O’Brien 212,000
  5. David Letterman 180,000
  6. Jimmy Fallon 173,000
  7. Stephen Colbert 168,000
  8. Jimmy Kimmel 153,000
  9. Craig Ferguson 117,000
  10. Mo’Nique 110,000
  11. George Lopez 94,000

Not surprised to see Chelsea Handler take the top audience figures from young women, but what’s this, Leno comes in second? Who woulda thunk it?

And because college kids notoriously view late-night TV differently from everyone else — rebels — let’s zero in on that set.

MEN 18-24

  1. Stewart 190,000
  2. Colbert 168,000
  3. Conan 100,000
  4. Lopez 53,000
  5. Fallon 50,000
  6. Leno 46,000
  7. Letterman 36,000
  8. Kimmel 30,000
  9. Ferguson 27,000
  10. (tie) Handler 23,000; Mo’Nique 23,000

The lone bright spot for George Lopez was drawing in the teens and twentysomethings. More good news for Comedy Central and Team Coco here, even though they’re directly competing against each other. Fallon also gets an expected bounce, as just like his Late Night predecessors before him, college-age boys-to-men prefer the 12:35 a.m. host to the 11:35 p.m. host on NBC.

Any surprises in what the young ladies watch, or will it hold to form with the larger 18-34 demo?

WOMEN 18-24

  1. Handler 138,000
  2. Stewart 101,000
  3. Colbert 83,000
  4. Conan 77,000
  5. Leno 56,000
  6. Mo’Nique 52,000
  7. Fallon 49,000
  8. Kimmel 45,000
  9. Lopez 42,000
  10. Letterman 37,000
  11. Ferguson 24,000

No wonder the suits at E! wanted to lock Chelsea Handler into another couple of years of gossip jokes. And the “Tiffany Network” at CBS must wonder if young women still like Tiffany.

Well, them’s the books for 2011. Anything surprise you about the Nielsen numbers in late-night this year?



Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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