Despite ratings wins, Leno still faces hurdles

Thu Mar 18, 2010 11:41pm EDT
 
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By James Hibberd

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Can Jay Leno win and lose at the same time?

The latest ratings have the "Tonight Show" host winning the late-night battle but struggling to conquer the long-term war.

"Tonight Show" led the late-night crop last week among total viewers and the key adult demographic (4.4 million viewers, 1.2 rating in adults 18-49), beating CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" (3.8 million, 1.0).

Then there's the nagging comparisons with Conan O'Brien and Leno's own performance from last year.

For the second and third weeks since his return to late night, Leno is down from comparable dates in 2009, slipping 13 percent in the demographic and 3 percent in total viewers. The concern is that not all of Leno's audience has returned to the show. In addition, this week the median age of Leno's audience is 56 (Letterman's is 54; O'Brien averaged 46).

For the industry to perceive that NBC made the correct choice in keeping Leno, another key hurdle is that the "Tonight" host stay above the ratings O'Brien scored during his tenure as "Tonight" host.

But for the past couple weeks, Leno has barely topped O'Brien's average -- 1.2 to O'Brien's 1.1 -- even though O'Brien endured inferior lead-in ratings from the 10 p.m. hour (Leno's short-lived primetime effort).

The gap between hosts is a bit bigger, however, if one uses O'Brien's fourth-quarter rating of 1.0, before his impending exit caused his numbers to climb.

The race is much tighter at 12:35, with a tie in the key demo between NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (1.7 million, 0.6) and CBS' "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" (1.8 million, 0.6).

 
<p>Jay Leno gestures during a panel at the Television Critics Association Cable summer press tour in Pasadena, California in this August 5, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>