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Is Late Night TV Going the Way of the Dodo Bird?

Jay Leno vs. Conan O'Brien

Johnny Carson was once America’s unrivaled king of late night television. But in 2011, not only is there a question as to who has assumed his throne, but some wonder whether with TiVo, cable television, and the Internet, the title even exists.

“The concept of the 'Late Night King' is over. There are too many players spreading the viewership even thinner,” Tim Young, comedian and Chair of the Young Members Committee of the National Press Club, told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “After Carson, it was a toss-up between Leno and Letterman. Their writing never really changed with time, and the late night slots got stale.”

Ratings for Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" sharply declined last year in the wake of the Conan timeslot scandal. By October 2010, Nielsen viewership statistics showed Leno losing 21 percent of overall audience compared with 2008, and 25 percent of his viewers in the advertiser-friendly 18 to 49 bracket. At one point, David Letterman’s rival "Late Show" beat Leno in the ratings for the first time in years. And even Comedy Central's low budget "The Daily Show" is now neck-and-neck with Leno in the key 18 to 49 demographic. For 2011's second quarter, Comedy Central claims Stewart's show drew 1.295 million compared to a “Tonight Show'’ total of 1.292 million.

Leno’s nemesis Conan O’Brien has also suffered a serious dip in audience since he headed to TBS, and George Lopez’s late night comedy program on the same network was axed altogether. Despite Nielsen data showing that viewership for “Conan” was down from 2.4 million in its first month late in 2010 to 958,000 in July, an inside source told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column that TBS is committed to the Emmy-nominated show for the long haul, and is in particular committed to building O’Brien’s social media powerhouse and “Team Coco” online empire.

So who's bucking the downward trend? Jimmy Kimmel is not gaining eyeballs on his ABC show, but he's losing them either, having held an average viewership of 1.7 million since 2010. Craig Ferguson's “The Late Late Show” has at times topped both Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon in the ratings war, and Ferguson is unofficially positioned as heir to the Letterman throne. And E!’s Chelsea Handler,the lone female on late night, managed to surpass Conan’s ratings for the first time ever this past June, averaging 959,000 compared to his 851,000. 

“There is certainly a window for (a female to dominate the genre) as I don’t think we’ve seen a woman on a major network yet. Traditionally and sadly, comedy has always been a man’s game,” said Young. “That’s not to say that there aren’t leading women. I think Joan Rivers years back would have made an incredible Late Night host. So did Johnny Carson when he let her fill in for him.”

And according to Jamie Masada, owner of West Hollywood’s famous Laugh Factory, the ladies have no problems getting laughs. “Women are actually more appealing and funnier than men, they get huge laughs at ‘Laugh Factory,’ and most of my sold-out shows feature women,” Masada said. “Look at Ellen (DeGeneres) and Chelsea (Handler.) They are both doing wonderful. I’m sure if Ellen was on at night she would beat all of them.” 

So with the ratings declines, time-slot battles, and talk show attrition, what direction is the world of late night heading?

“The longstanding, traditional format of the late night talk show will probably continue to slowly recede, until it will probably disappear for the most part not too long from now. Leno and Letterman will remain on the air until they chose to leave, and the established younger hosts like O’Brien, Kimmell, Fallon and Ferguson will likely plug away a bit longer but never hold sway over the night like their predecessors did,” said Hollywood entertainment expert Scott Huver. “Comedy will still probably loom large on late night TV, but very likely in newer, fresher, more unconventional formats that are still emerging. Due to late night’s longtime bent toward topical, of-the-moment humor, those new formats will probably be more linked to an immediate online presence than ever before. The next generation of late night pop culture pundits will need to bring the funny for more than just an hour an evening, using Tweets and viral videos to lure their audience in for a follow-up experience.”

Deidre Behar contributed to this report.

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