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Jay Leno Doubles Conan's Debut Audience

NBC suits danced a cautious happy dance Tuesday morning when they got early stats showing the unveiling of Jay Leno's new prime time comedy/talk show copped 18 million viewers the night before at 10.

That's NBC's best performance in the Monday 10 p.m. timeslot since the Summer Olympics in August of 2008.

Despite the show's many negative reviews, the show built on it leadin - the final performance broadcast of NBC's summer series "America's Got Talent," featuring people who would not have gotten past the early screening process on "American Idol" for those of you who have not been watching.

For water-cooler purposes, 18 million people is about 6 million more than watched Leno's glutinous final broadcast as host of "The Tonight Show" in May - the one in which he'd brought out on stage all the children who had been born to show staffers during his tenure as host.

And, most deliciously, it's about twice as many people as caught Conan O'Brien's debut as host of "The Tonight Show" in June. NBC, you'll recall, dumped Leno as host of its iconic late night franchise last spring, even though Leno had been No. 1 in late night for years. NBC did so in order to install Conan as host, because Conan was going to young-up the show a lot and NBC is in the business of selling younger viewers to advertisers. That's because advertisers pay a premium for ad time on shows that can reach younger viewers -- who are the least interested in watching traditional television and therefore considered the most desirable viewers It's a lot like dating in high school.

And while, yes, Conan's "concentration" of viewers is younger than Leno's had been -- Leno is a big-tent kind of guy whose audience includes a hefty chunk of older viewers -- Conan only clocked about 1,000 more 18-34 year olds in his 14th Week hosting "Tonight" than had Leno the comparable week one year ago.

In case you missed it, Leno's first show featured Very Special Guest Jerry Seinfeld, who noted that back in the 90's, when he was the biggest thing at NBC, if a show ended, it really ended, instead of moving to a different timeslot. (Among TV critics' biggest complaint about Leno's new show is that is bears a strong resemblance to his old "Tonight Show." Which, given that Leno's "Tonight Show" was the most popular thing going on all of TV -- broadcast or cable -- in its timeslot, would seem to fall into the category we like to call "Duh!" ). Leno's primetime debut also featured a treacly bit in which he administered Guest-Appearance Abolution to his music guest Kanye West, who'd made a total fool of himself the night before when he yanked the microphone from that cute little Taylor Swift while she was giving her acceptance blah, blah, blah after winning a trophy at the MTV Video Music Awards. Kanye was angry the win hadn't gone to Beyonce.

Anyhoooo, getting back to Leno's opening audience of 18 million, this is where serious students of television will begin to draw themselves up to their full height and insist that comparing a primetime show's ratings to a late night show's ratings is not fair, because the number of Homes Using Television is so much smaller at 11:30 p.m. than at 10 p.m. To those people we'd like to say: Hooey.

By Lisa de Moraes  |  September 15, 2009; 11:22 AM ET
Categories:  TV News  
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I'm not overly surprised by the large number. I'll be surprised if there isn't a gradual drop off, especially once the other networks start their new seasons at 10. We watched about 10 or 15 minutes and were bored with it.

Posted by: ArlingtonGay | September 15, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Give Justin Timberlake a musical variety hour and watch that night's "Leno" go down in flames.

A five-nights-a-week Jay killer: Move Craig Ferguson to 10 p.m. on CBS.

Jay proved the concept of comedy at 10 p.m. Now watch the competition do him one better.

Posted by: scrivener50 | September 15, 2009 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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