NBC Snows Over Rivals in First Night of Winter Olympics

20 million viewers tune in for bonus Sochi coverage

NBC on Thursday iced the competition with its first night of Winter Olympics coverage from Sochi, averaging 20 million viewers, an 11.3 household rating and a 6.0 among adults 18-49.

Because the first night of competition was uncharacteristically scheduled before the Opening Ceremony, event-to-event comparisons may be a bit misleading. That said, on Feb. 13, 2010, during the premiere night of activities of the Vancouver Games, NBC delivered 26.2 million live-plus-same-day viewers and a 7.6 in the dollar demo.

At the risk of making any apples-to-hand grenades comparisons, last night’s Sochi coverage was down 21 percent versus the relevant night four years ago. That is not entirely surprising; after all, the first night of action in Vancouver took place on a Saturday, when the broadcast schedule was decidedly less competitive. (NBC went head-to-head with repeats of Cops and America’s Most Wanted on Fox, as well as the movies Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on ABC and The Wedding Crashers on CBS. Together, those counterprogramming efforts averaged a 1.1 in the demo.)

Among the top local markets tuned in last night were: Minneapolis (17.7 rating/29 share); Indianapolis (17.0/28); Kansas City (16.1/25); Denver (15.5/25) and Oklahoma City (15.3/22).

The Opening Ceremony begins tonight at 7:30 p.m. EST and will run until roughly 11:30 p.m. After the local news, NBC will air the final episode of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

The man who Fallon will replace as the host of The Tonight Show went out with a bang Thursday night. Jay Leno’s second farewell broadcast—he first closed up shop in May 2009, when NBC executed what would be a short-lived experiment with Conan O’Brien—delivered a 9.2 rating/22 share, more than tripling The Tonight Show’s average performance (2.8/7).

UPDATE: Per rush live-same-day data, Leno’s final show drew 14.6 million viewers and a 3.8 rating among adults 18-49. That marks the biggest deliveries for an episode of The Tonight Show since Jerry Seinfeld appeared on May 14, 1998—the night of the Seinfeld finale. That broadcast averaged just under 15 million viewers.

The Tonight Show With Jay Leno put up its biggest number (22.4 million viewers) on May 20, 1993, when Leno played host to the boozed-up cast of Cheers, following the long-running sitcom’s series finale. Broadcast live from Boston’s Bull and Finch pub, the show was such a sloppy debacle that Leno would go on to characterize the stunt as “a huge mistake.”

The capstone of a 22-year stint in late night, last evening’s show featured appearances from President Barack Obama (in a pre-taped gag) and Leno’s first Tonight Show guest, Billy Crystal. Musical guest Garth Brooks banged out two numbers; among those making cameo appearances were Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Sheryl Crow, Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey.

In his final address to an audience made up of friends and family, Leno wished his successor the best of luck and quoted Johnny Carson’s own farewell speech. “I bid you all a heartfelt goodnight,” Leno said, echoing the closing salvo of Carson’s curtain-closing speech on May 22, 1992.

Earlier in the night, two marquee programs held their own against the Olympics. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory delivered 17.5 million viewers and a 5.2 in the demo, even with last week’s live-same-day rating. Fox’s American Idol slipped one-tenth of a ratings point (3.1), although lead-out Rake continues to falter. The third installment of the Greg Kinnear drama drew a series-low 1.1 in the demo at 9 p.m.

All told, NBC swept every metric, including young adults (it drew a 4.8 in the 18-34 demo), women 18-49 (6.3) and men 25-54 (5.9).