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Conan gets his biggest ratings with finale

January 28, 2010 |  5:54 pm

Conandebut You know how everyone slows down on the freeway to look at a car wreck? The equivalent happened for Conan O'Brien's last appearance as host of "The Tonight Show."

After weeks of controversy over NBC's efforts to return Jay Leno to the late-night schedule and O'Brien's decision to leave rather than get pushed back to a post-midnight starting time, 10.3 million people turned out last Friday to watch his final broadcast, according to figures released today by the Nielsen Co.

That was his largest audience since moving into the "Tonight Show" job last June 1. His premiere telecast had drawn 9.2 million viewers.

For the week, "The Tonight Show" averaged 5.3 million viewers, leaving David Letterman and his "Late Show" far behind with 3.9 million. That was O'Brien's best showing since his first week on the air, when he averaged 6.1 million.

Letterman still leads in the season-to-date figures, however, averaging 4.2 million viewers to O'Brien's 2.8 million. Leno was averaging more than 5 million viewers when he hosted "The Tonight Show."

Leno alluded to that differential in the interview with Oprah Winfrey that was broadcast today. "If you look at what the ratings were, it was already destructive to the franchise," he said of O'Brien's showing. "...This was the first time in the 60-year history of 'The Tonight Show' that 'The Tonight Show' would have lost money and that's what it comes down to. It's really just a matter of dollars and cents. If the numbers had been there, they wouldn't have asked me."

--Lee Margulies  

Photo: Conan O'Brien on his debut telecast as host of "The Tonight Show." Credit: Paul Drinkwater / Associated Press