Conan won’t come close to Leno and Letterman in ratings, of course. But the perception (that combo of hype, demos, and word-of-mouth) will be that Conan is a hit. And perception counts for a lot. It’s what makes some of you think Jon Stewart, as good as he is, out-draws your local news at 11. He doesn’t.
One recalls that in NBC's Leno-at-10 gambit, Leno didn't outdraw his competition, but NBC never expected he would. The buzz about "late night" stuff tends to overlook that viewership is dwarfed by prime time stuff.
As noted earlier, this overemphasis in the "not so important" has a patent analog:
NBC "10 pm" and IBM "wall of patents": similar strategies?
NBC's "cheap programming" gambit fails, but incrementalist patents survive
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