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Four Reasons Why Leno Got His Audience Back So Fast

by Joel Keller, posted Apr 9th 2010 5:02PM
Jay Leno on his first day back on 'The Tonight Show' on March 1, 2010We at TV Squad have been accused of having an bias against Jay Leno. That might be true; after all, our writers are free to post their opinions on any and all news stories, and my guess is that most of our staff are not big Leno fans (in fact, Bob has said many, many, many times how much he dislikes Jay).

But, one thing we've never denied is that the man can get an audience at 11:35. And, if anyone was fretting that Leno's audience wouldn't follow him back to 'The Tonight Show,' you needn't have worried.

According to Media Life Magazine (via TVWeek), Leno averaged 4.2 million viewers per night last week. Yes, that's one million viewers less than he had a year ago, but it's still a million more than Letterman, whose 'Late Show' has lost about 900,000 viewers since Leno came back. And Leno's pulling almost 1.5 million more viewers than Conan did.

So, why did most of the viewers come back so soon? Four reasons come to mind:

1. Leno is late-night comfort food. Even as a big Conan fan who finds Jay a snore, I can acknowledge how strangely odd and comforting it was to flip around the dial and see Jay sitting at his desk. My late-night routine is to flip between Jay, Dave, and Jimmy Kimmel after 'The Colbert Report' ends, to see who each of them are talking to (or in the case of Jimmy, what he's talking about in his monologue).

Since Jay came back, seeing him zone out at his desk while talking to whatever celeb is plugging his or her latest project just felt right to me. Believe me, I'm not proud of that feeling.

2. Letterman is a turn-off for a lot of people. Let's face it: After 28 years, Letterman has his audience and it's never going to change much. Many people, like me, think he's one of the last great broadcasters on television. But just as many people think he's a bitter, humorless crank who has now been revealed as a cheater and womanizer.

So, people who may have sampled Letterman while Conan was away, and were turned off by either his persona or the whole blackmail fiasco, decided to run back to Leno when he came back.

3. Conan's show just wasn't 'The Tonight Show.' As much as seeing Jay at the 'Tonight' desk was a comfort, seeing Conan at the same desk felt equally uncomfortable. The Conan interregnum just didn't feel like 'The Tonight Show' to me, and I was never able to shake that feeling.

I don't know if it was because Conan wasn't a good fit for the everyman comic persona that's needed on that show, or that the show felt too much like Conan's old 'Late Night' for me to associate him with 'Tonight.' Either way, whenever I tuned in to Conan's 'Tonight,' it felt like he was trying too hard to put on a big show.

Letterman's cynical style works on CBS, because he was able to define the 'Late Show' brand. But, even with Conan's edges shaved down (there was no masturbating bear until he got canned, for instance), absurdist bits like "Wax Fonzie and Tom Cruise get shot out of a cannon" probably made most of the people who sampled him just scratch their heads.

Would that have worked itself out if Conan got the time he deserved? Sure. But it would have taken a few years.

4. People really didn't give a rat's patoot about the Second Late Night War. As much as it was juicy fodder for TV nerds like us -- and a new source of profit for Bill Carter -- most of America just didn't care. They didn't give a second thought to whether Jay didn't give Conan a chance, or whether Conan was treated poorly by NBC or not. So most people embraced Leno with open arms when he came back.

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Kraft Mac and Cheese is supposedly comfort food too. It doesn't make it any good.

April 11 2010 at 1:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to angie's comment

it's a business. all it has to do is to taste good enough to be able to sell tons of them, which leno excels at...

April 11 2010 at 3:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

the thing is this Conan was unable in his new show to keep the fans that he had (I was his fan) and to garish new ones

Many hail him as a victim and as a hero in all this but there a vast minority of us that not nesessarly see Conan as the villain in all this but that are greatly disapointed in what I personally read as imature and egocentric behavior.

I wish Conan the best for old times sake and perhaps because of all this will be popular now and be the new late night king.

I have to give it to him he constantly knows how to sell himslf as a victim and how to play his cards

And yes I dont see Jay leno as the villan what I do fault jay with is with not being more aggreisive in defending himself 5 years ago when NBC decied to give the show to conan

Perhaps if Jay would of left to a network or taken a stance he would be the folk hero now

But then again lets see who gets the last laugh I for one wont follow Coco

to fox

April 11 2010 at 5:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Elliot Gainway

"The Conan interregnum just didn't feel like 'The Tonight Show' to me, and I was never able to shake that feeling."

I have always felt this way about Leno as host of The Tonight Show.

It makes me sad that people actually think that Jay is funny especially since Leno truly was funny prior to hosting the TS and then dumbed down his humor to appeal to the lowest common denominator. If you compare the Leno of the 70's and 80's and his many guest spots on Letterman's show, to the Leno of the 90's and 2000's, it's like he flipped a switch to no longer be funny or even know how to properly tell a joke.

I am also tired about hearing what a nice guy Leno is. Sure, he's nice to fans as are most celebs, even Letterman and Conan. But Leno is not nice professionally. Just ask Carson (prior to his death), Letterman and Conan how nice Leno's knife feels in their backs.

Bottom line; Leno took 3 years to get good ratings on the TS and beat Letterman and Conan was only given 7 months. Carson used to have 15 million nightly viewers, Letterman had 10 million nightly his first 2 years on the Late Show and Leno has never broken 7 million consistently.

April 11 2010 at 2:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've never watched late-night shows for the host. I tune in if someone I want to see happens to be on, or if I'm bored and it's the least objectionable thing on.

That said, I've always liked Leno because he's a regular guy, and if I had to have a beer with anyone in the current lineup, it'd be him. A buddy of mine sees him every once in a while at an automotive bookstore in Burbank and says he's exactly the same in person as he is on the air.

The reality is that Conan, being as hot a commodity as he is right now, will land on his feet at another network, and those who prefer him will tune in. I doubt there's going to be much bleed-over between Coco and The Chin. That'll be good for everybody. To each his own.

April 10 2010 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

PC's outsell Macs, too. Letterman is for brighter people who appreciate true talent. Leno was a great comic who cashed it in for broad appeal acceptance. Letterman doesn't talk down or pander for numbers.

April 10 2010 at 1:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ColinInLA's comment

yes, segments like "will it float?" is for bright people...

April 11 2010 at 3:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As one of the posters who consistently derided the Conan love, it is nice to see TV Squad own up to its own disconnect with the majority of viewers.
Jay knows the Late night audience. Dave is basically mailing it in and collecting big checks. For example, when was the last time he did a sketch out of studio (a staple of his early days when he built the loyal following).
I also think adding to the mix now is the hitting on female staff members. In his defense, when he was hitting on most of them he was not married, which explains his reluctance the. To his discredit, a boss hitting on a subordinate is just wrong in any business.
I amdit I never "got" conan. It is easy to be the class clown and constantly try new (sometimes digusting) put-downs. But, for me, there was no there, there.

April 10 2010 at 12:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Letterman might not beat Leno in ratings, but constantly beats him in ad revenue.

April 10 2010 at 10:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is a fifth reason:

5: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno does not have the lame prime time Jay Leno Show as a lead in. With real 10 PM programing, both the late news and Tonight Show gain passive viewers who won't change the channel.

April 10 2010 at 1:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to FailureAnalyst's comment

It's nice to know that if I ever have to give up Cable TV, Leno is back on the air. As unfunny as he is, he's better than the other late night options. Always was better than Letterman, Conan, and whoever else fills that time slot.

I'd still rather fall asleep to the Science Channel, though.

April 10 2010 at 12:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joyce N.

Ah, the late night TV world is right again.

April 09 2010 at 11:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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