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Leno's opening numbers won't tell the story

September 14, 2009 |  5:59 pm

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the early ratings for Jay Leno's opening-night performance will start hitting desks and the immediate Tuesday-morning quarterbacking will begin.

LENO One night of numbers, heck, one week of numbers, particularly when the competition is soft, is not going to tell us a whole lot. Leno should do well. NBC has unceasingly promoted him, and his first-night guests include not only Jerry Seinfeld but also MTV Awards showstopper Kanye West will pop by to do the Hugh Grant mea culpa.

When he was on in late night for NBC earlier this year, Leno averaged about 5.2 million viewers and the network has recently been indicating that a similar performance in the 10-11 p.m. slot is all it would take for the show to be a financial success. Considering that last season, NBC averaged about 8 million viewers in that hour, it is not a high bar.

Right out of the box, Leno should easily top that number. But down the road when the competition kicks in and the novelty wears off, it might be another story.

The most important number to look at when determining whether NBC's gamble is paying off is how the local stations are doing at 11 p.m. after Leno's show ends. Local news is where TV stations make their money, and if Leno's small audience drags those numbers down, NBC's affiliates will start getting antsy.

Then there's Conan O'Brien. It's unlikely that Leno's new 10 p.m. time period will help Conan. The question is whether Leno hurts Conan and if so, how bad. Hurt Conan (whose numbers are already down) and you potentially hurt NBC's "Today" show too, because if people are turning away from O'Brien that means the TV's on a different channel when they wake up in the morning. Yes, even in the age of the DVR and remote control clicker, this is what some network executives think, even if there isn't much logic to it any longer.

Naturally there will be a rush to judgment on Leno's early ratings. Rivals are no doubt hoping Leno opens huge against reruns because that will make the inevitable declines when the real competition starts all the more dramatic.

NBC will counter that it is programming for "margins, not ratings." Yes, five hours of Leno are cheaper than five hours of dramas. What NBC doesn't say is that it takes only one successful drama to make more than enough money to cover for the four nights of not-so-successful dramas and line its pockets. We're guessing that "Law & Order" and "CSI" have made more money in the last decade than "The Tonight Show." A lot more.

Barring Leno completely tanking this week, it will be several months before one can determine whether NBC made the right call. One wonders, though, what the in-case-of-emergency-break-glass-plan is at NBC.

Here's a scenario: If Conan's performance continues to slide, and Leno's is lackluster, NBC swallows hard, puts Leno back on in late night, and pays a whopping penalty to Conan to leave.

-- Joe Flint