NBC won’t spin Jay Leno numbers yet, but it has some spinning to do

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Looking to avoid another premature declaration, NBC will not issue a press release today anointing Jay Leno as the new king of prime time as it did with Conan O'Brien in late night when he premiered in June. That turned out to be a rush to judgment, as Conan’s numbers quickly dropped off and CBS’ David Letterman overtook him in viewers and closed the gap in key demographics.

Leno’s first-night numbers were very impressive, but there is an asterisk next to them. While he drew almost 18 million viewers, his competition was weak. ESPN did have football, but rival broadcasters CBS and ABC were in rerun and movie mode. Furthermore, the end of the U.S. Open delayed CBS’ schedule, so Leno didn’t even square off against a full hour of ‘CSI Miami.’ On the demographics front, Leno easily won among viewers ages 18 to 49 and 25-54 but was strongest with the over-50 crowd. For a more detailed report on Leno’s first-night performance, please see our analysis at our sister blog Show Tracker.


As the competition increases and the novelty wears off, Leno’s numbers will no doubt come down. NBC knows this and has been wisely lowering expectations with advertisers and the media.

NBC also has to do a sell job. For some 15 years, the network has stressed the importance of the 18-49 demographic and the high median income of its audience. With sophisticated comedies and dramas like ‘Friends,’ ‘ER,’ ‘Frasier’ and ‘The West Wing,’ it was no wonder that NBC’s typical viewers had deep pockets.

Now five hours of its prime-time schedule is filled with a show that appeals to a decidedly older audience that has less money to spend. NBC has said repeatedly it is programming for margins, not ratings. That’s fine, but after changing the way the game is played on Madison Avenue, it will be interesting to see how successful NBC is at again changing the rules.

-- Joe Flint