Jay Leno

According to Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times, a commercial for Jay Leno’s reclamation as host of “The Tonight Show” on March 1 will only cost $35,000. A few years ago, $50,000 was the going rate. Flint cites the competition from the other late-night talk shows, digital video recorders, and the availability of clips on the Internet.

Audience erosion

Indeed, as late-night shows like those hosted by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert sprouted on cable, viewers have gradually tuned out the networks’ counterparts. The combined audience for NBC’s, ABC’s and CBS’ late-night programs has fallen 20% from five years ago, according to Nielsen Co.

More troubling: The group of viewers 18 to 49 years old — the spend-happy cohort that sponsors most want to reach — has plunged 36%.

Spending money

One of NBC’s arguments in moving Leno into prime time was that, although his show would garner fewer viewers than a drama, its lower production costs would lead to higher profits.

But that doesn’t mean a late-night retinue of producers, writers, stagehands and assistants — O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” employed 190 people — plus the host come cheap.

Letterman and Leno each pull down more than $30 million annually, said people familiar with the productions, and O’Brien earned $12 million. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel makes $8 million to $10 million, these people said.

The price drop is completely understandable. There are more late-night talk shows now than ever before and they need to do this to stay afloat. If one show is charging less, another will have to do the same unless its ratings are dominant. Of course, the advertisers aren’t complaining.