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Jimmy Fallon and the rest of the late-night scorecard

May 6, 2009 | 11:09 am


On his Monday night show NBC's Jimmy Fallon joked that he "absolutely loves calendars." Well that made us check ours and, lo, it's been two whole months since his show's premiere, which is as good a time as any to check out his numbers and the late-night scene overall as it heads into a major transition.

The good news: Fallon has been averaging 2.15 million viewers since his March 2 debut, according to Nielsen. That not only puts him in first place ahead of CBS' Craig Ferguson and the last half-hour of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel (who is at a disadvantage in late night because he follows "Nightline" and doesn't start until after midnight), but he's even doing better than his predecessor, Conan O'Brien, who was attracting just over 2 million viewers. 

The bad news: Since hitting a peak in Week 3 with almost 2.4 million viewers (that was the same week his lead-in, Jay Leno, had President Obama, giving Fallon's numbers a bump), the ratings have been in decline and as of late he's been averaging 1.8 million viewers.

Some drop-off was to be expected. However, it is important that Fallon try to build as big a following as he can now because, while O'Brien in his earlier late night berth will probably start with a bang, he probably won't measure up to Leno's standard once the hoopla wears off. That means a smaller lead-in for Fallon who this season has benefited from Leno, whose numbers are up nearly 10% in viewers to 5.4 million viewers.

NBC isn't the only network scrutinizing the late-night numbers. CBS is trying to figure out how much it'll cost them to keep David Letterman another year or two. With Leno moving to prime time to make way for Conan at 11:30, this is Letterman's last shot at securing the title of King of Late Night. Letterman, whose deal is up in August 2010, has been in renewal talks with CBS for several months. Ideally, CBS would like to be able to announce a new deal when it presents its fall lineup to advertisers in two weeks.

Letterman's salary has been pegged at just north of a recession-resistant $30 million a year. That's an awful lot of clams for second place. Letterman's numbers are up 4% this year to an average of 3.7 million viewers, but that is still far behind Leno. Plus, Letterman is said to be looking for a short-term deal, which would seem to give CBS the leverage in negotiations. After all, if Letterman really wants outta there in a couple of years he's unlikely to jump ship. CBS is in belt-tightening mode across the board and certainly isn't interested in giving Letterman a huge raise.

Waiting in the wings for Letterman's slot is CBS' Scotland-born Ferguson, who has become a favorite of many critics and has seen his "Late Late Show" audience grow 10% to 1.8 million this season. Then there's Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, whom many industry observers think CBS will go after big time when it is time to fill Letterman's shoes.

On paper that makes sense. But does Stewart need Letterman's slot? He's averaging 2 million viewers on Comedy Central already. He's been on the cover of Time, penned bestsellers and has already hosted the Oscars twice. In other words, other than more money, there isn't much for him to gain and an awful lot for him to lose if he decides to go network.

On the other hand that Ed Sullivan Theater is pretty nice.

--Joe Flint

Photo: Jimmy Fallon. Credit: Dana Edelson / NBC