Conan O'Brien's highly anticipated return to the airwaves was packed with digs at his former employer, NBC. You may recall that O'Brien departed rather bitterly from the network back in January, when NBC executives clumsily pivoted former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno back into his old gig in the aftermath of the poor showing for Leno's prime-time variety show.
But it appears that O'Brien, whose new show, "Conan," premiered Monday on TBS, has a new late-night adversary: "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, who skews strongly toward the same younger viewing demographic that O'Brien is now chasing.
Ever since TBS announced in April that the fair-skinned former "Tonight Show" host would be joining its roster with a five-year contract reportedly worth more than $10 million, TV insiders have speculated about a head-to-head rivalry between O'Brien and Stewart. Both are cerebral, funny performers who clean up among the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that makes advertisers salivate. And now they're both on cable at 11 p.m.
So how did they stack up Monday night?
O'Brien trounced Stewart, pulling in roughly 4.16 million total viewers--exceeding the 3.97 million total viewers O'Brien averaged during his last year on NBC--and 3.28 million viewers ages 18 to 49, according to the Nielsen Co. Stewart had 1.3 million total viewers, with 690,000 of them in the 18-to-49 demographic.
Leno had 3.47 million total viewers.
" 'Conan' delivered an extraordinary audience and stands out as the youngest late-night talk show on television," said Turner Entertainment Networks President Steve Koonin in a statement, noting O'Brien's online presence and large Twitter following.
O'Brien's big ratings debut could spell bad news for Stewart, whose Comedy Central bosses just last week boasted about how he had for the first time become the No. 1 late-night host among the 18-to-49 set, beating Leno and David Letterman in that demographic.
Stewart himself acknowledged the burgeoning rivalry with a joke during his competing opening segment (during which he also congratulated O'Brien and his crew).
"They're back on television tonight," said Stewart, pretending to flip through a TV guide. "I just want to check and see when, because I'm excited to -- " Then he feigned a freak-out. "Same time as me! Now I'll never be able to watch me," he joked.
Comedy Central declined to comment on the prospect of a Stewart-O'Brien ratings war.
But Stewart might not have cause to worry just yet. O'Brien's debut clearly benefited from tremendous advance hype; the question is whether O'Brien will continue to pull anything like that level of viewership as the show settles into its standard rotation.
"Trying to divine any real meaning from O'Brien's early poll numbers is a complete waste of time," said New York magazine's Josef Adalian. "Cable shows ... have a tendency to start big then lose steam."
New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter, whose new book, "The War for Late Night," hit shelves last week, also weighed in on a prospective O'Brien-Stewart rivalry.
"I do think there is a different niche," Carter said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Jon's audience is news-oriented and politically oriented. Conan is a very sophisticated and smart guy, but he does a form of comedy that's silly, in a way, and there's sort of an audience that likes that too."
Quoting from his book, Carter added: "Young people love Conan, but they'll take a bullet for Jon Stewart."
You can watch the video of the "Morning Joe" discussion below: