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'Tonight Show' finale lifts Jay Leno to record Friday rating

May 30, 2009 |  1:51 pm

Jay Leno ended his 17-year run on NBC's "The Tonight Show" with one for the record books. His send-off drew the highest Friday overnight ratings during his tenure on the program.

In the top 56 local TV markets, Leno scored an 8.8 rating/20 share in households, according to early data from Nielsen Media Research. That more than doubled the 3.9 rating Leno has averaged in the second quarter of this year. And it was the highest-rated "Tonight" for any night of the week since President Obama visited the program on March 19. Final ratings, including total viewer numbers, will not be available until Thursday.

"Tonight's" ratings are being closely watched because NBC is about to undertake a risky programming experiment. On Monday, the "Tonight" slot will be taken over by Conan O'Brien, who was previously the host of NBC's "Late Night." And in a network bid to reduce program costs, Leno will this fall host a new prime-time talk show at 10 p.m. weeknights. 

On his "Tonight" finale, Leno's guests were O'Brien and James Taylor. The host received a lengthy standing ovation from audience members at the start of the show.  

Since Leno took over the "Tonight" chair, television audiences have continued to fragment into smaller and smaller groups. Indeed, when Leno's predecessor Johnny Carson exited "Tonight" in May 1992 after a 30-year run, an estimated 41.4 million viewers tuned in -- a mark neither Leno nor any other late-night host may ever see again.

-- Scott Collins

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