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Conan’s jump is further proof that cable is catching up

Andy Gottesman / Lantern photographer

Critical analysis aside, Conan O’Brien seems to have found a healthy niche in his new gig on TBS. Conan is a smaller piece of cable programming’s bigger victory, however.

The idea of a clash between network and cable television has slowly faded to black as the populace opts for more expansive programming packages. I myself, just recently got cable at my apartment, prompting a friend to wryly welcome me to the 20th century.

Network television has always had a crushing hold on the ratings. “South Park” might create water-cooler conversations with its content, but Nielsen ratings indicate that “The Simpsons” averages 6.5 million viewers to the 3.1 million watching “South Park.”

O’Brien’s first night drew 4.1 million viewers, according to Reuters, falling to 2.8 million on his second night and leveling off at 2.7 million on Wednesday.

Two-point-seven million is more than a million fewer than what Jay Leno draws on a typical night.

So, cable is still behind. It’s catching up, however, and it’s doing so quickly. Leno’s prior TBS competition was “The George Lopez Show,” which got bumped back to make room for O’Brien. Lopez averaged 600,000 viewers a night. O’Brien will probably drop more viewers over the next few weeks, but Leno’s competition will still be 1.6 million viewers higher per night than it was a month earlier. Plus, Leno’s 3.8 million viewers still represents one of the lowest levels in the history of “The Tonight Show.”

The point is that cable is quickly gaining ground, and networks are slowly losing it. The hosts of cable talk shows also have more magnetic personalities than their network counterparts. O’Brien and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart appeal strongly to the 18-49 age group, which is the most sought-after by television networks. O’Brien sells out the Schottenstein Center. Stewart brings millions to the National Mall. The idea of Leno or Letterman doing either is laughable.

Talk shows aren’t the only network front under assault. ESPN was one of the first cable networks to come out on top of network television. In 2006, “Monday Night Football,” a sports program more established than any other in America, made the jump to cable. It had been the second-longest-running show on network television and, just like that, to cable it went.

The only thing that network television had on cable was quality series shows. It made sense: Big networks like NBC can find the cash to make an expensive and enjoyable program like “The West Wing” and enjoy the Emmys that come with it. Premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime could also afford to make similar shows because of extra income.

Basic cable has finally jumped on the bandwagon.

One network in particular, AMC, has assembled a formidable group of Emmy nominees. “Mad Men” has won 13 Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series the last three years. Bryan Cranston won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series the last three years for his work in “Breaking Bad.” The network’s newest show, the zombie series “The Walking Dead,” drew 5.1 million viewers during its premiere, a number enviable to many network shows.

To those of you who point out that “Monday Night Football” jumped from one ABC network to another, you’re right. But the point is not that shows are changing ownership. The point is that programs can jump from free network channels, such as ABC, to ESPN, which costs the viewer monthly, without hurting viewership.

The point is that network versus cable will be irrelevant if the latter can swallow the former.

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