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Jay Leno pulls in almost 18 million viewers in primetime debut

September 15, 2009 |  8:39 am

Leno

Jay Leno opened big in prime time, drawing 17.7 million viewers and easily winning every demographic race. Of course, with Jerry Seinfeld and Kanye West as guests, millions of dollars spent on hype and light competition, it would've been hard for "The Jay Leno Show" not to score a big audience on his first night at 10.

Curiosity no doubt played a huge factor, as evidenced by the show's first half-hour, which drew just over 18 million viewers -- in the second half-hour, nearly a million viewers jumped ship. Leno also had a strong “America’s Got Talent” lead-in that averaged almost 15 million viewers. On the downside, 60% of the audience for Leno was over the age of 50, which is not what advertisers covet.

One night's numbers does not a story make and while the early results will have NBC brass smiling and spinning (after all, Leno's numbers more than doubled what NBC averaged in the 10-11 p.m. hour last season), keep in mind that other than football on ESPN, the rest of the industry pretty much gave Leno a pass on Day 1. 

The real challenge will be in the days and weeks ahead when he is squaring off against original programming and the novelty of a prime-time talk/variety show starts to fade. Once the viewers vote, it will be up to the bean counters at NBC to determine whether the bet pays off financially.

From a critical standpoint, little has changed for Leno from his days at 11:30 p.m. The critics who weren't fans of his then, obviously didn't suddenly become fans just because he is on 90 minutes earlier. At the same time, viewers who like Leno don't really care that he isn't the critics' choice. The good news for NBC is that there are more viewers around at 10 p.m. than there are at 11:30 p.m.

Leno's strong start no doubt also gave Conan O'Brien a late-night boost, although more detailed ratings information on late night won't be available until later today.

In Los Angeles, Leno delivered a 10.2 rating and 18 share on KNBC, crushing the competition and providing a huge lead-in for the station's 11 p.m. newscast, which scored a 7.1 rating and 16 share. That easily beat KABC, which usually dominates late news.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: NBC / Getty Images

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