Jimmy Fallon's first night had almost everything: A parade of A-list walk-ons, U2 on a rooftop ... and some high ratings.
An average of 11.3 million total viewers tuned in to the premiere of NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," according to Nielsen. Fallon took over the fabled talk show from Jay Leno and, amid a burst of publicity, moved "Tonight" back to New York for the first time since 1972.
The numbers don't quite match the 14.6 million who turned up to see Leno's last episode of "Tonight" this month. But in an encouraging sign for NBC, Fallon's audience was significantly larger than the ill-fated 2009 premiere for Conan O'Brien (9.2 million), who hosted "Tonight" for only a few months before Leno was brought back. Fallon's audience probably would have been even bigger but for the midnight start time, because of coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Realizing the high stakes, Fallon and his producers stacked the first show with high-profile talent, including Will Smith as guest, U2 performing on the rooftop at Rockefeller Center and a comedy bit featuring a parade of celebrities including Robert DeNiro, Seth Rogen, Tina Fey and Mariah Carey.
But of course, one night doesn't mean much in the world of late-night talk, where rival hosts such as David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert (who did a cameo on Fallon's opener) vie for attention. Viewing habits take a long time to develop and a long time to break. So what really matters is how the audience feels about Fallon months down the road, when the novelty has worn off and there isn't any Olympics for NBC to use as a promotional platform.
"The ratings next May and November will be far more important than the first week or two and [will be] indicative of how Fallon stacks up versus Letterman, Kimmel, Conan and Colbert," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media in New York.
However, there is one area that already might be of concern to NBC executives. Fallon's opening rating in the adults aged 18 to 49 category -- the key demographic for late-night entertainment -- was a 3.8. As it happens, that is exactly the same rating that O'Brien got for his opening night, and the network and its affiliates were hardly thrilled with O'Brien's numbers over the long haul. Yes, it's still early, but it must be disappointing to station managers that on his first night (and with huge Olympics promotion), Fallon did no better than O'Brien among the young adults they are most eager to reach.
What do you think? Can Jimmy Fallon go the distance?