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Jimmy Fallon off to decent start in late-night ratings race

March 10, 2009 |  6:03 pm

Nbc_office_kfl42xnc_300 When his new NBC talk show premiered last week, Jimmy Fallon introduced a comedy bit spoofing TV bosses’ fixation on attracting certain market demographics. Fallon’s show is supposedly going after blond mothers, according to the bit, partly because “they look less sick and sad than their brunet counterparts.”

Would that the networks really did treat ratings as nothing more than a punch line. But the first episode of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” had no sooner signed off than the media-spinning began, with rivals closely watching NBC’s crucial makeover of a late-night lineup that’s been No. 1 for years. Fallon, of course, took over “Late Night” from Conan O’Brien, who’s headed to the “Tonight Show,” which begins an hour earlier, at 11:35 p.m. Jay Leno, meanwhile, will commandeer NBC’s 10 p.m. weeknights slot starting in September.

So how did Fallon do? Based on an analysis of its first-week performance in the top 56 markets (the final national ratings will be published Thursday), the program did just fine. The numbers held up well enough to give competitors something to worry about, but were not so earth-shaking that Fallon has nowhere to go but down.

“Late Night” averaged a 2.0 rating in the so-called “metered-market households,” versus a 1.6 for its closest competitor, CBS’ “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

“We’re right where we hoped we would be,” Rick Ludwin, NBC’s executive vice president in charge of late-night series, said in an interview Tuesday.

In fairness, most shows deliver inflated numbers for their premieres, and there are already some signs of a tightening race at 12:35 a.m.: On Monday, Fallon and Ferguson tied with 1.6 ratings. Ferguson had been narrowing his gap with “Late Night” prior to O’Brien’s departure, and with Fallon in charge CBS is hoping to overtake the rival franchise.

NBC’s moves this year, in fact, have heightened a sense that all of late night is up for grabs. In many senses, it is, and not just because Leno and O’Brien are getting new sets. In late night, as at other times, the broadcasters are struggling to protect their turf as cable chips away more and more audience share, especially among young people. Adult Swim’s “Family Guy” draws nearly as many viewers aged 18-49 –- the ones advertisers want –- as CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” and ABC’s news show “Nightline."

As a result, the broadcast shows keep getting older as their audiences age with the hosts. A decade ago, “Tonight’s” median viewer age was 45. Today, it’s 56. Median age of the “Family Guy” viewer? Twenty. Safe to say there aren’t many blond moms in that group.

Even so, Fallon’s first week makes it clear NBC will be a late-night force for quite some time. Referring to speculation that the shakeup among its hosts would hurt NBC’s late-night prospects, Ludwin said, “These were the exact questions being asked in 1992 and 1993, when Johnny Carson left the ‘Tonight Show.’”

-- Scott Collins

(Photo courtesy Diane Bondareff / AP)

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