Late-Night Scorecard: Leno’s On Top, As Usual

Jay Leno continues to enjoy a comfortable lead over late-night rivals David Letterman (top) and Jimmy Kimmel (Photos: CBS, NBC, ABC)

It’s the paradox that has dogged Jay Leno for most of the 21 seasons he has hosted “The Tonight Show”: For most of that time, he’s been No. 1 in the ratings. And yet, NBC has floated plan after plan to replace him.

Today, Leno’s “Tonight Show” remains the top-rated show in late-night as Jay enjoys what will likely be his final May ratings sweep as host of the show.

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Leno, 63, is due to be replaced by Jimmy Fallon next year — reportedly in February or March. It will be the second time NBC will have replaced him, even while he continues to beat his rivals. Leno is still comfortably in first place, and that’s despite the addition in January of a second time-slot competitor — “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC — which has not seemed to have drawn any viewers away from Leno.

The numbers tell the story: For the most recent week for which late-night ratings are available, April 29 to May 3 (released this past Thursday), Leno’s “Tonight Show” averaged 3.4 million total viewers per night, according to Nielsen; CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” averaged 2.8 million; and “Kimmel” had 2.5 million.

Watch the late-night shows and compare: Here’s Friday night’s “Tonight Show”:
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For Jimmy Kimmel, 2.5 million is a marked improvement over the viewership he once had when his show started a half-hour later at midnight. Compared to last December, the month before he made the move to 11:35 p.m., Kimmel has grown his audience by 500,000 viewers or more.

And it would seem that Letterman has been the one most affected by Kimmel’s entry into the earlier time period since Dave’s average, generally speaking, is down a couple of hundred thousand from the average he used to customarily enjoy — somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million viewers or more nightly. (This is kind of ironic, of course, because Kimmel idolizes Letterman and apparently despises Leno, and yet, Jimmy’s show has taken a bite out of Letterman’s ratings, not Leno’s.)

Watch Thursday night’s “Kimmel”:
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But for Leno, the 3.4 million he averaged the week of April 29 (Monday) through May 3 (Friday) — which happened to be the first week of the May ratings sweep — is pretty much what he’s been averaging the last few years.

And by the way, Leno also beat his rivals in the 18-49 age group that week, as usual — so no one can say Jay’s not popular in the younger demos advertisers crave; it’s just not true.

It is interesting, though, that Leno continues to lead the ratings — in both total viewers and the demo — and yet NBC is charging ahead with its plan to move “The Tonight Show” to New York next year and hand it over to Fallon. It’s a great illustration of the paradox articulated by another late-night TV personality, Craig Ferguson, when he appeared on “The Tonight Show” last week and had a warning for Leno. Said Ferguson, “Don’t have your show do really, really, really well in the ratings, Jay, because that’s what gets you fired!”

Now watch David Letterman’s monologue from Friday’s “Late Show”:
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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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