By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES Feb 7 Jay Leno's send-off as the
host of NBC's late-night talk show the "Tonight Show" drew 14.6
million viewers, Nielsen Media Research said on Friday, topping
the audience that bid adieu to the host when he left the show
for the first time in 2009.
Leno's emotional farewell on Thursday was the comedian's
fourth-largest "Tonight Show" audience since he took the reins
from Johnny Carson in 1992.
The finale attracted the same number of viewers who tuned in
to watch Leno interview U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009, in
what was the first ever appearance of a sitting president on a
late-night talk show.
Carson, who led the show for 30 years, attracted 42 million
viewers for his final show in 1992, in an era when broadcast
television commanded far greater audiences than today.
Viewership of the "Tonight Show," which has been the
top-rated late night show under Leno's guidance since 1995, was
also helped on Thursday by NBC's lead-in coverage of the first
day of Winter Olympics.
Leno, 63, was given a star-studded good-bye with
comedian-actor Billy Crystal as the featured guest and surprise
appearances by Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Carol Burnett and Kim
Kardashian, among others.
Audiences during Leno's final week rose to nearly 5 million
per episode compared to the season average of 3.9 million.
Guests on the show in the past week included actors Sandra
Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, comedian Jimmy Fallon, former NBA
basketball player Charles Barkley and musical performances from
country singers Blake Shelton and Lyle Lovett.
Current "Late Night" host Fallon, 39, will take over for
Leno on Feb. 17 as Comcast Corp-owned NBC attempts to
transition the show to the younger, under-50 demographic most
coveted by advertisers while keeping its grip atop the ratings.
It is not known if Leno will pursue another show in
television once his contract with NBC expires in September, but
the comedian will tour his stand-up show as he has done in years
O'BRIEN'S FINAL JAB
Leno's highest-rated show drew 22.4 million viewers in 1993,
a year into his tenure, and was tied to the finale of the NBC
comedy series "Cheers," which was one of the most-watched TV
episodes in U.S. history.
Other notable episodes during Leno's reign include his first
telecast in 1992, which attracted 16.1 million viewers, and 15
million viewers tuned in to watch the show after the 1998 finale
of popular sitcom "Seinfeld."
NBC previously attempted to make the passage to a younger
audience in 2009 by slotting Leno into primetime and giving its
marquee "Tonight Show" to comedian Conan O'Brien, who had been
the host of "Late Night."
Some 11.9 million people watched Leno's final show in 2009
before handing off to O'Brien. But the failure of the
Leno-O'Brien gambit led NBC to reinstall Leno as "Tonight Show"
host after just eight months and forced O'Brien to end his
contract with NBC, resulting in a very public, bitter feud.
Leno's departure aroused congratulations, a wry mention and
a jab from his late-night talk show rivals.
O'Brien, who was groomed for Leno's seat only to be pushed
out by the network and the host, said on his TBS cable program
that he would allow himself a single joke at Leno's expense.
"The Olympics start airing tonight on NBC ... NBC will
finally get to show somebody who is OK with passing the torch,"
the comedian quipped.
CBS' David Letterman, beaten out by Leno for the "Tonight
Show" chair in 1992, ultimately straining their friendship,
noted that Leno's 22 years on the show were "remarkable" and
congratulated him on a "wonderful run."
ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who has been highly critical of Leno's
brand of middle-brow humor, the treatment of O'Brien and the
handling of his departures, tweeted out a congratulatory note on
"Issues aside, 20 years at #1 is a remarkable achievement.
Congratulations and best wishes to @jayleno on an incredible
run," the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" host wrote.