In a possible attempt to hop on the viral bandwagon, Late Show's David Letterman recently downed glasses of raw eggs with guests Sylvester Stallone and Theo James a stunt that would have seemed plucky in 1976 but now looks embarrassingly tame considering what his competition is doing with wandering wolves and a catchy tune from Frozen. Letterman's bit generated a mere 30,656 YouTube views over five days, hardly enough to register on the cultural Richter scale. And with Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers now manning the late-night desks at NBC, it's never been harder for CBS vets Letterman and Craig Ferguson to make noise after 11:30. Since Fallon's Tonight Show bow, two of his viral stunts the Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing (with first-night guest Will Smith) and his performance of ''Let It Go'' with Idina Menzel and The Roots have racked up 12.8 million and 8.2 million YouTube views, respectively. The Jimmy Kimmel-backed Sochi wolf hoax was played more than 5.8 million times on YouTube, and on a somewhat smaller scale, Meyers topped 1.4 million hits with his Feb. 25 interview with Kanye West. In terms of actual TV viewers, Fallon's debut has been strong but it's still a bit early to declare it game-changing. During his mid-Olympics debut week, he logged 11.1 million viewers in live-plus-seven results. (That's live viewers plus people who watched on DVR in the next week.) But his levels have since settled at 6.1 million, according to live-plus-same-day. (Time-shifted results for the first three weeks are not yet available.) That's still better than Letterman (2.7 million) and Kimmel (2.5 million), not to mention what Jay Leno averaged (4 million) before leaving on Feb. 6.
The competition seems to have reinvigorated Kimmel, who's amassed 122 million views on his YouTube channel since Feb. 1 and who appears to be slowly closing the ratings gap with Fallon. ''[Kimmel] is at the top of his game,'' says Lisa Berger, ABC Entertainment's exec VP of late-night programming. ''What we are seeing has been incredibly encouraging.'' Ratings-wise, Fallon is doing a 1.95 in the key 18-49 demo better than Kimmel (.65) and Letterman (.55) combined, while Meyers (.84) is ahead of Ferguson (.35). ''We don't have to do any spin,'' says NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert. ''To say we are extremely pleased is an understatement.''
CBS has remained remarkably calm about the whole affair partly because its middle-aged hosts are not about to start behaving like Internet-obsessed frat boys, and partly because the late-night race is a marathon, blah blah blah. Says one Eye suit, ''Once the halo dims over the new players, the power of prime time will ultimately catch up to these shows and how many viewers they pump into late night.'' (That's easy to say for CBS, which is currently No. 1 in prime-time viewers this season. But NBC thanks to the Olympics, football, and The Voice is No. 1 among adults 18--49.) Ferguson producer Michael Naidus puts it another way: ''We've been doing this for 10 years.... [Whenever there's a change] everybody trumpets the first few weeks' ratings; everybody takes the first show and puts it under a microscope. That really has nothing to do with whatever quality and ratings the show will settle into.'' Egg-zactly.
Meanwhile, on cable...
Host: Jon Stewart
Show: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart 11 P.M., Comedy Central
Target Audience: Anyone with an office job
Social Stats: 2.3 Million Twitter Followers 4.3 Million Facebook Likes
Worth Watching For: Interviews nobody does them better
Host: Stephen Colbert
Show: The Colbert Report 11:30 P.M., Comedy Central
Target Audience: Anyone with an office job + wine
Social Stats: 6.1 Million Twitter Followers 3.3 Million Facebook Likes
Worth Watching For: All the news you pretended to understand earlier that day
Host: Conan O'Brien
Show: Conan 11 P.M., Tbs
Target Audience: Thirtysomethings with a strong Wi-Fi signal
Social Stats: 10.3 Million Twitter Followers 2.4 Million Facebook Likes
Worth Watching For: Viral videos and a supersilly online presence
Host: Chelsea Handler
Show: Chelsea Lately 11 P.M., E!
Target Audience: High schoolers with dirty mouths, moms with late bedtimes
Social Stats: 5.5 Million Twitter Followers 1.9 Million Facebook Likes
Worth Watching For: Handler's filter-free rants and cadre of up-and-coming comics
Host: Andy Cohen
Show: Watch What Happens Live! 11 P.M., Bravo
Target Audience: Anyone who gave Real Housewives a DVR season pass
Social Stats: 1.4 Million Twitter Followers 250 Thousand Facebook Likes
Worth Watching For: Guests from A-list to Z-list. And Cohen's giggle.
*Season to date average, live plus same day; ratings courtesy of Nielsen