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Jay Leno Beats Letterman by a Landslide

Jay Leno
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Jay Leno is back and bigger than ever: 6.65 million viewers tuned in for his first night at "The Tonight Show" since leaving for primetime last May.

The late-night "fast national" ratings are finally out: "The Tonight Show with Jay leno drew 6.65 million viewers, ranking number 1 in the time period by far. This is up from the average five million viewers Leno attracted in both the 10 pm and 11:35 pm slot. In stark contrast Conan O'Brien averaged just about two and a half million viewers when he held the Tonight Show spot.

Trailing behind Leno last night, Letterman's "Late Show" pulled 3.8 million viewers on CBS and ABC's "Nightline" 4.1 million. We'll get final numbers from Nielsen in about a week, but based on this early assessment, there's no debating that the king of late night is reigning again.

Leno was expected to kick off his new show with big numbers, coming on the heels of the highly rated Olympics, in which NBC heavily promoted the new show. He's also packed his couch with big guests this week, including Jamie Foxx and skier Lindsey Vonn. Tonight he'll be joined by Sarah Palin and snowboarder Shaun White.

NBC must be breathing a big sigh of relief — Leno's fans are loyal, and heavy promotion during the Olympics worked. Leno's numbers will likely slide back towards the 5 million averages he consistently scored earlier, as the curiosity factor wears off. But it's still a sign that Leno will likely continue to beat Letterman.

This afternoon's final numbers aren't quite as big as this morning's early local ratings indicated -- Broadcast & Cable Editor-In-Chief predicted based on Leno's 14 percent share, that he drew seven million viewers. But NBC points out that the percentage of people who picked Leno over Letterman is quite strong: in the key 18-49 year-old demographic, "Tonight" beat the "Late Show" by 45 percent.

CBS didn't hesitate to send out a press release saying that its "Late Show" posed increases in adults 18-49 and 25-54 compared to its season average for first run shows. For adults 18-34, CBS says its "Late Show" ratings were on par with average. No matter which way you slice it, more people watched Leno last night than watched his primetime show, or watched Conan in Leno's current slot. And that's certainly a good thing for NBC after so many months of late night turmoil.

(*Note: NBC and CNBC are both owned by parent company General Electric)

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