In his first week as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," Fallon averaged 8.5 million viewers, the biggest numbers that program has seen in 20 years. To be sure, Fallon was aided by having Winter Olympics coverage as a lead-in, but the show's strength throughout the week is a good sign for NBC.
It also will likely increase sampling for Seth Meyers, who succeeds Fallon as host of "Late Night" starting tonight. Fallon leaves big shoes to fill. His final "Late Night" averaged 6.6 million viewers.
Fallon and Meyers have both been important personalities at NBC for a long time, and have followed similar paths on the network, both moving to "Late Night" after stints at "Saturday Night Live." Meyers was best known for anchoring the "Weekend Update" segments on "SNL."
"Late Night" already has an edge on its direct competition. Earlier this season, Fallon was averaging 1.99 million viewers overall and a rating of 0.6 in the key 18-49 demographic. That's stronger than the 1.42 million (0.4 in 18-49) that CBS' "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" has pulled in the time slot.
Still, it's worth noting that the talk show landscape is different from when Fallon took over "Late Night" five years ago.
Red-eyed TV audiences have more options for laughs, including cable talkers such as "The Pete Holmes Show" on TBS, which airs after Conan O'Brien. In 18-49, ratings for ABC, CBS and NBC are lower by an average of 28% compared with the 2008-2009 season.
The promotions for Meyers have been a bit subdued compared to those for the "Tonight Show" handoff to Fallon. And surely the anticipation for Fallon's big launch was in part due to the attention surrounding the departure of Leno after 22 years of hosting, and a botched transfer of power to then-"Late Night" host Conan O'Brien a few years ago.
While O'Brien's "Tonight Show" tenure was short-lived, his move to the earlier time slot followed in the tradition typified by David Letterman's jump from "Late Night" to CBS' "The Late Show," which he's anchored since 1993.
That said, there's little reason to think Meyers won't pull in some strong numbers in his early days. But it's the weeks, months and years ahead that will determine whether "Late Night" continues its track record of readying 12:35 p.m. hosts for the 11:35 p.m. game.