Last night, the first broadcast of The Jay Leno Show drew a whopping 17.7 million viewers, many of them with their original teeth. As the guy who wrote the story with the “Future of TV” cover line, I should probably just leave it at that and call it a day. But let’s take a look at what does and doesn’t matter about that number, in ways that are both good and bad for Jay:
* First, the obvious. It was a great number, surpassing the public guesses I’d seen out there yesterday (and probably surpassing NBC’s expectations)—but it should have been a great number. It was Jay’s first show; he’s one of the most well-known figures on TV; he had little original-broadcast competition; he had a three-month, multimillion-dollar promotional campaign; and his sails were filled with the fortuitous winds of Hurricane Kanye. That set of circumstances is only going to happen once.
* The demos were not as good. I kid about that “original teeth” line, but preliminary numbers indicate that about 60 percent of his viewers were above 50 (and thus ignored by advertisers in setting rates), a very high percentage. When it’s a matter of Conan losing to David Letterman in overall viewers, NBC will adamantly tell you the only number they care about is the 18 to 49 demographic number. I await the press release to see whether that remains the case.
* On the other hand: it beats 7.7 million. Even if there’s nowhere to go but down, that’s still a lot of people sampling the show. A surprisingly low number would have been a bigger deal than a surprisingly high number, and it would have signaled a long two years for NBC.
* It doesn’t matter if the critics don’t like it. As should by obvious by now. If you read the reviews, you’ll see that TV critics did not care for The Jay Leno Show any more than his Tonight Show, which it so closely resembled. That did not stop him from winning his timeslot for the past 15 years.
* It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it, either. I exaggerate, but only slightly. It cannot be overemphasized that Leno’s show is first and foremost a cost-cutting move. It’s a fifth or less expensive than airing scripted dramas; therefore, what would be a bad number for Law & Order would still leave NBC in the black on Jay. Now, Jay’s ratings can’t be too bad; if he cripples Conan, or inspires a mass revolt by affiliates with a low lead-in for the local news, that’s disaster. But the normal physics of ratings do not apply.
Bottom line: Jay’s ratings will drop a lot from here—again, remember Katie Couric—let alone next week, when his show is on against network originals. On the other hand, his show is a rare and powerful creation: a TV show that is not just critic-proof but even ratings-proof—or, at least, ratings-resistant.
Jay will lose a lot of viewers; that’s a given. But at least he’s got a lot to lose.