The state of late night

When Americans are looking to soothe their frazzled nerves after a long day, late-night TV shows have always been happy to oblige. But these days, the world of late night is as topsy-turvy as the real world we're trying to tune out.

Just one year ago, Jay Leno was cruising along as the undisputed king of late night. Five million faithful watched the "Tonight" show host, as reliable as his restored Model T, night after night delivering A-list guests, John McCain jokes and wacky headlines.

A million viewers behind him was the urbane David Letterman, still considered the best in show by many, and everyone else followed in the wake of these two old pros. Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel all had their multitudes, but the pecking order in late night was clear and it was unalterable.

Then it all came undone. Leno left NBC's "Tonight" to prepare for his new 9 p.m. show. Conan moved to L.A. to take his place and promptly lost half of Leno's audience. Back in New York, Jimmy Fallon took over Conan's spot and lost a third of his audience.

That cleared the path for Letterman to reclaim the top spot in the ratings after surrendering his crown to Leno 14 years ago.

But how long will Dave be around to enjoy it? He has gotten himself into an unflattering, highly publicized romantic drama that might cost him support among the 58 percent of his audience that is female. And now we learn, courtesy of Newsday, that the "Late Show" host has yet to sign an extension to his CBS contract, which runs through 2010.

It no longer seems implausible that Dave might actually hang it up, settle down with his wife and raise their child out of the limelight. That would make Ferguson the most likely candidate to take over "Late Show" just about a year from now, not bad for a guy who until recently wasn't even a U.S. citizen.

The most stable part of late night has been the lowlands, where Kimmel, Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose and Chelsea Handler (look, a woman!) continue to draw smaller but still lucrative audiences. Hoping to join their ranks are Wanda Sykes, whose weekly show airs at 10 p.m. Saturdays on Fox starting Nov. 7, and George Lopez, whose "Lopez Tonight" launches at 10 p.m. Nov. 9 and will air weeknights on TBS.

Indeed, the more you look at the growing menu of late-night options, the more clear it becomes that there are no more kings in late night. There are only senators, each with a well-heeled constituency.

That said, there always seems to be a sentimental desire among many TV critics to declare Letterman the leader again. He has by far the most viewers, averaging about 4.7 million a night, or nearly twice O'Brien's audience. However, as far as advertisers are concerned — and they are the ones who actually determine a show's success — Conan is king.

Why? Because even with half the audience, he still outdraws Dave among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Advertisers pay dearly to reach those viewers.

Letterman, of all people, can appreciate this. In the 1980s NBC discovered that beer companies and movie studios preferred to advertise on his "Late Night" show, which was watched by college kids, instead of "The Tonight Show," which was watched by their parents.

As for Leno, he's still hosting a late-night show, no matter what NBC calls it. And he's still more popular than Letterman, though with "The Jay Leno Show" airing five nights a week in prime time, it had better be.