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Conan’s Ratings Are Up Amidst NBC Shake-Up

Ratings for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien rose through last week, and were 50 percent higher Friday than the show’s season average, according to a preliminary Nielsen Co. estimate reported by The Associated Press.  The figures, based on large TV markets, showed that O’Brien beat CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman — and in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC relies on to set advertising prices. O’Brien even beat The Jay Leno Show,  which airs in prime time.

O’Brien’s team sees the ratings as vindication. His manager, Gavin Polone, on Saturday compared O’Brien’s ratings to when Leno, trailing Letterman in the mid-1990s, got Hugh Grant to appear after his arrest. Leno passed Letterman in popularity and held his ratings lead till the end.

“People who never watched Conan before are saying, `I’ll try it,'” Polone said. “Now they’re saying, `this is good, I’ll stick with it.'”

Viewers will probably not get the chance.

Though Conan has been lighting up NBC with jokes, including one skit where he and Andy Ritcher are being shot at by NBC gunmen, the current host of The Tonight Show has been laying off Leno. On Friday, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, Jeff Gaspin, had said the shooting matches between hosts “has definitely crossed the line.

“Jay is the consummate professional and one of the hardest-working people in television,” Gaspin said. “It’s a shame that he’s being pulled into this.”

Leno averaged 5.2 million viewers per night on his last season at the Tonight Show, Nielsen said. O’Brien is averaging 2.5 million this season.

If Conan leaves NBC and is allowed back on TV after a short leave of absence, where will he go? Fox is the most obvious choice, and Kevin Reilly, the network’s entertainment president, has been anything but subtle about how much he likes O’Brien. Yet the network’s affiliates would be a hard sell for the network. They already have programming in the 11 p.m. hour and while sitcom reruns of Seinfeld may not seem like much, they are big cash generators for local TV stations.

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