'The Jay Leno Show' Gets Strong Early Ratings

But Where Will Ratings Settle as Show Airs Every Night?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC's new and much-scrutinized "Jay Leno Show" turned in a better-than-expected performance on its first night, nabbing something close to 18 million viewers, according to preliminary estimates. Now the question is whether the new 10 p.m. talk show has legs.

Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno on 'The Jay Leno Show'
Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno on 'The Jay Leno Show' Credit: Justin Lubin
No one expects the new program to generate those sorts of numbers forever. If Mr. Leno and his compadres could generate something along the lines of 5 million viewers nightly -- close to the average audience the comedian took in during his recently-ended run on the venerable "Tonight Show" -- NBC ought to be thrilled.

"Early sampling for the new show was inevitable. ESPN's 'Monday Night Football' was the only real competition for viewers for the night, so the real test isn't whether they stopped by to check out the new place, but if they come back and settle in," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas's MPG. "As the final ratings come in, expect the demo numbers to have some relative strength for last night's broadcast, but have some measure of falloff as the week goes on and the mystery around what Jay will be bringing to prime time has revealed itself."

Last night's debut felt to many critics like a rehash of Mr. Leno's time at 11:35 p.m., which never brought in hosannas from the erudite, but was plenty good to make "Tonight" a winner for years on end with the hoi-polloi. Guests included a smirking Jerry Seinfeld and a contrite Kanye West, who expressed dismay and regret for his recent behavior on MTV's "Video Music Awards," where he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech to call out his support for Beyonce. Mr. West was even rendered temporarily speechless after Mr. Leno, from seemingly out of nowhere, asked the rapper if his late mother would approve of such behavior.

Advertisers for the evening included InBev Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light, Sprint, Chili's, American Express, Ford Motor Co., Best Buy and Walgreen's. NBC also used the night to its advantage, trotting out multiple promos in each ad break for shows including "Trauma," "The Office" and "SNL Primetime."

In New York, promos for the local news broadcast to follow Mr. Leno were quite prominent, with New York affiliate WNBC getting time in the show's first ad break. NBC affiliates are counting on Mr. Leno's program to deliver sizable audiences to their late-evening newscasts, a top source for local ad revenue. At the end of the debut, Mr. Leno told viewers that their local newscast was coming up immediately after his sign-off.

In some sense, the ratings for Mr. Leno's debut may not matter at all. When the comic first took over the helm of "Tonight" after Johnny Carson signed off, his performance was weak. Only after a year or so did he start to gain traction, eventually trouncing rival David Letterman after he left NBC and started up a rival program at CBS. In this go-round, however, Mr. Leno will play to a relatively small audience during prime time, and no one is forecasting a change from that scenario as network audiences continue to fragment and make issue of DVRs. The show also debuts in a week with little competition, as the other broadcast networks have not yet started fall-season programming.

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