The TV Column by Lisa de Moraes: Leno and Letterman Each Have Bragging Rights

President Obama, then a candidate, appearing on "Late Show With David Letterman" in 2007. He'll return Monday.
President Obama, then a candidate, appearing on "Late Show With David Letterman" in 2007. He'll return Monday. (John Paul Filo - CBS)

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By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NBC suits danced a cautious happy dance Tuesday morning when they learned the unveiling of Jay Leno's new prime-time comedy-talk show had averaged more than 18 million viewers the night before.

That's NBC's best performance in the Monday 10 p.m. time slot since the Summer Olympics in August 2008.

For Facebookers' post-like-an-expert purposes: 18 million people is about 6 million more than watched Leno's glutinous final broadcast as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" in May -- the episode in which he'd brought out onstage all the children who had been born to show staffers during his tenure as host.

And, most delicious, it's about twice as many people as caught Conan O'Brien's debut as host of "The Tonight Show" in June, a few weeks after NBC dumped Leno from the show even though he was ranked No. 1 in late night among all TV networks.

NBC did so because Conan was supposed to young-up the show, and NBC is in the business of selling younger viewers to advertisers. That's because advertisers pay a premium for ad time on shows that can reach young viewers. They are the least interested in watching traditional television and therefore the most desirable viewers.

It's true that more than half of Leno's opening-night crowd -- about 10 million people -- was at least 50 years old. Normally, NBC would call them a throwaway audience, if the network bothered to discuss them at all, because NBC insists it sells its prime-time schedule to advertisers based only on the number of 18-to-49-year-olds who are watching.

But those older viewers are heavy consumers of news programming. (News programming targets 25-to-54-year-olds.) And, you may have heard, NBC affiliates had their cami-knickers in a knot last spring when NBC announced Leno would take over the 10 p.m. hour weeknights this season, because they feared a Leno-hosted show would hurt the ratings of their 11 p.m. newscasts. That's because late-night talk shows, like Leno's "Tonight Show," fall off a ratings cliff in the second half.

But in his first night as a prime-time star, Leno lost only about 1 million viewers in his second half-hour. And he actually attracted more 18-to-49ers at 10:30 p.m. than at 10.

That's probably because Kanye West showed up in that second half-hour, one day after he had made a jackass of himself at a trophy show -- again -- this time at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Leno administered Guest-Appearance Absolution to Kanye, making him cry by asking him what his mother would have had to say about his behavior at the VMAs, if she were still alive. Then Leno patted Kanye on the knee and sent him off with a clean conscience to perform a tune with Jay-Z and Rihanna.

Good news, Kanye: While more than 18 million people saw you stumble through your apology on Leno's show Monday, only about 9 million people actually caught your tirade. All good! (Though, of course, that is the biggest VMAs audience since '04.)

Anyhoooo, getting back to Leno's opening audience numbers, this is where serious students of television will draw themselves up to their full height and insist that comparing Leno's prime-time show's ratings with his and Conan's late-night ratings is not fair, because the number of Homes Using Television at 11:30 p.m. weeknights is so much smaller than at 10 p.m. To those people we'd like to say: Nuts to you.

Obama Everywhere

One day after trying for a presidential record by appearing on five Sunday Beltway shows, President Obama will make more history if he becomes, as planned, the first sitting U.S. president ever to visit David Letterman's "Late Show."

Monday will be the first night of the 2009-10 TV season and Obama will be appearing on CBS after the season debut of the network's David Caruso starrer "CSI: Miami," though Obama is not expected to weigh in on that. Instead, he's expected to focus on his health-care reform plan.

Obama last appeared on Letterman's show last September. To prepare for his upcoming appearance, Obama will have just one day to rest up from a marathon of blah, blah, blah-ing on Sunday. He is scheduled to appear on ABC's "This Week," NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation," CNN and Univision. It will be a presidential record even though he's giving Fox News Channel a miss that day, as well as the Fox broadcast network, which has steadfastly refused to preempt its prime-time schedule for Obama news conferences or even addresses to a joint session of Congress.

As if that isn't enough, Obama made even more TV history when he sat down to do an interview with one broadcast network and it turned up on another broadcast network. He gave an interview to CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday, and Jay Leno's producer used portions of it to fake an interview between Jay and Obama, during which Obama was "asked" questions about fruit tarts and dating the first lady.

About 11 million people caught Obama on "60 Minutes." While this is a substantially smaller crowd than Obama's used to, it's about twice as many people as watched "Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins" one hour earlier that night on Cartoon Network. On the other hand, Scooby broke all Cartoon Network ratings records, while Obama only pulled in an average "60 Minutes" crowd. Which just goes to show you, once again, that all things are relative.

And, on the bright side, another 18 million watched Obama weigh in on fruit tarts on "The Jay Leno Show."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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