LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jimmy Fallon’s debut as the host of NBC’s “Tonight Show” drew 11.3 million viewers, network NBC said on Tuesday, making it the second most-watched episode of the late-night talk show in the past five years.
Fallon’s premiere on NBC’s flagship late-night program failed to top the farewell episodes of Jay Leno on February 6 and in 2009, but eclipsed the audience that tuned in to watch Conan O’Brien begin his short, ill-fated stint as host.
Fallon, 39, welcomed actor Will Smith and Irish band U2 as his first official guests, and the show also featured appearances from the likes of comedian Tina Fey, actresses Lindsay Lohan and Sarah Jessica Parker, and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Actor Robert De Niro, boxer Mike Tyson, pop star Lady Gaga and Comedy Central rival Stephen Colbert also welcomed Fallon to the show, which returned to its roots in New York after more than 40 years in Burbank, California.
Leno’s first goodbye in May 2009 from the “Tonight Show” drew 11.9 million viewers while his second sign-off attracted 14.6 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
O’Brien’s first episode as “Tonight Show” host drew 9.2 million, but his ratings quickly dropped off and Leno was reinstalled as host eight months later.
Fallon’s ascendance to one of the most visible and long-running roles in U.S. television marked Comcast Corp-owned NBC’s second attempt to transition the “Tonight Show” to the younger, under-50 demographic most coveted by advertisers while keeping its grip atop the ratings.
The former host of NBC’s “Late Night” was helped in the ratings by a lead-in of the network’s coverage of the Winter Olympics.
Leno, who took over as host after Johnny Carson in 1992, led the “Tonight Show” to the top of the late night ratings in 1995 and remained there until his second tenure ended.
Fallon’s challenge will be to duplicate Leno’s most recent season average of 3.9 million viewers per episode.
Former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Seth Meyers will take over Fallon’s spot as host of “Late Night” on February 24.
Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Mary Milliken and Mohammad Zargham