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David Letterman beats Conan O'Brien in ratings race

June 10, 2009 |  4:11 pm

David Letterman needed only seven days to beat Conan O'Brien in the ratings war.  O'Brien started out strong last Monday when he premiered as host of the "Tonight Show" earning a socko 7.1 rating. But by the end of the week he was down to 3.5. And this week, Letterman's "Late Show" brought on big name stars to lure away one-time Leno viewers disheartened by the changing of the guard at NBC.

David Letterman Conan O'Brien News 1357924 Emmy Awards Howard Stern stirred up controversy on Monday's Letterman with his dismissal of Jay Leno as robotic. "I've never seen anybody who behaves like a robot like this guy. I watched his final show, saying goodbye to the 'Tonight Show,' reading it off a teleprompter for crying out loud. Where's the emotion? Where's the humanity?" He punctuated his tirade by pointing to Letterman saying, "Here's the host that we want to watch." And people did tune in with Letterman earning a rating of 3.0 for the night, just one-tenth of a point behind O'Brien.

Last night Julia Roberts guested on "Late Show" and charmed  Letterman with her declaration, "You are so much funnier than other people who talk at this time of the evening." And the viewing audience agreed as Letterman rated 3.4 for the night while O'Brien had free-fallen to 2.9 even with the last-minute addition of Eddie Murphy to the "Tonight Show" guest lineup.

Neither Stern nor Roberts appeared on the "Late Show" to promote an upcoming project. Rather, each made it clear that they were there in support of Letterman. Like his long-time hero Johnny Carson, Letterman seldom lets his guard down on TV. However, the veteran talk show host has mellowed in recent years, often talking about the trials of raising his now 5-year-old son Harry and even discussing with Julia Roberts the details of his surprise wedding in March.

Tonight, Letterman hosts an edition of the always popular Stupid Human Tricks as well as the outspoken Kathy Griffin and musicians Sonic Youth while O'Brien welcomes Dane Cook. Though Griffin is unabashed in her desire to win another Emmy, Letterman lies low with his own ambitions about awards.

While Jay Leno usually beat him in the ratings, it was Letterman who ruled the Emmys roost. Over Leno's first 16 years of hosting the "Tonight Show," he won just one Emmy for best variety comedy music series. That single victory was way back in 1995. And the last of his nine nods came in 2003. 

David Letterman won the Emmy Award for best variety comedy or music series for the inaugural season of the "Late Show" in 1994 and piled up another five consecutive wins beginning in 1998. And the show has been a perennial nominee ever since.

It took Conan O'Brien a full decade of hosting "Late Night" before the show got its first Emmy nomination in the variety comedy music series category in 2003. He, Letterman and Leno lost that year to "The Daily Show" hosted by Jon Stewart. "Late Night" landed a nod in each of the next four years, but Stewart's irreverent take on the news of the day would always win the Emmy. Last year, "Late Night" was not even nominated as the resurgent "Saturday Night Live" reclaimed a slot in the final five.

Conan O'Brien and his writing staff finally won an Emmy in 2007 after being also-rans every year from 1996 to 2004 and then again in 2006. That win brought an end to a four-year winning streak for "The Daily Show" scribes. Last year, the "Late Night" crew lost to the team behind "The Colbert Report."

Letterman won four consecutive Emmys as part of the writing team on the original "Late Night" beginning in 1984 and has been a perennial writing nominee for "Late Show," including last year. Leno and his team of gag writers have been snubbed by the Emmys for 16 years in a row.

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Photo: CBS

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