Strong Sampling for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show Debut

Post-Olympics opener ties Conan, but trails Jay

While the overnights for Jimmy Fallon’s first night at the helm of The Tonight Show were promising, it would be premature to crown the antic talk show host the King of Late Night.

The special midnight edition of The Tonight Show v. 7.0 delivered a 7.1 household rating and a 20 share in Nielsen’s 56 metered markets, tying the overnights Conan O’Brien notched on June 1, 2009, with the first night of his short-lived tenancy as host.

UPDATE: Per rush live-plus-same-day data, Fallon’s maiden voyage averaged 11.3 million viewers, topping O’Brien’s opener by a margin of 2.13 million. The two programs remained in a dead heat among adults 18-49, as both notched a 3.8 rating. 

Of course, Fallon enjoyed the benefit of a much greater lead-in, as the final hour of NBC’s prime-time Olympics coverage averaged 24.3 million viewers and a 5.8 in the dollar demo. By comparison, O’Brien’s Tonight Show debut arrived on a sleepy summer Monday, trailing episodes of American Gladiators and America’s Toughest Jobs.

While Tonight’s return to New York earned strong sampling, Monday night’s opener was down when compared to Jay Leno’s [second] farewell episode. The Feb. 6 broadcast delivered a preliminary 9.2 rating—which would translate into 14.6 million live-plus-same-day viewers and a 3.8 rating in the demo.

While the true test of Fallon’s mettle will come in the weeks/months/years to come, it will be interesting to see how the show fares once the Olympics lead-in disappears and the hype machine is thrown into low gear. The 11:30 p.m. EST field is crowded with wily veterans (CBS’ David Letterman), hard-punching showmen (ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel) and the Swiss Army knife that is Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert. 

Speaking of Colbert, the arch satirist last night welcomed Fallon to the trenches, dumping a bucket of pennies into the upstart host’s lap while howling a gleeful, “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”

Colbert’s cameo was so strong, he stole the show from a roster of fellow “surprise guests” that included Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Mariah Carey, Seth Rogen and Joan Rivers. (The 80-year-old Rivers hadn’t appeared on The Tonight Show since Johnny Carson cut ties with her back in 1986.)

Fallon’s first guests were Will Smith and U2.