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Lame duck Leno just keeps winning. How do we know? His network tells us so


Hey kids, is there even a slight chance this could happen all over again?

You know, a second pullback at some point from a premature evacuation of Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show.

Just wondering in light of a Thursday NBC publicity release headlined, “Jay Leno Delivers Dominant Wins Over Late Show and Kimmel for the week of April 29-May 3.” That’s not only in total viewers. It’s also among the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds that Leno’s announced replacement, Jimmy Fallon, supposedly will entrance when he takes over The Tonight Show after next year’s Winter Olympic games.

This wasn’t just a throwaway release. This was four pages worth of detailed ratings information from the late night terrain -- both broadcast and cable. And it paints a picture of a ratings giant -- that would be Leno -- who only seems to be getting stronger despite little if any help on most nights from NBC’s little-watched 9 p.m. (central) entertainment programming.

Here’s a telling paragraph from NBC’s numbers crunchers: “Jay has now accumulated bigger 18-to-49 audiences than (David Letterman’s) Late Show for the last 24 weeks in a row and topped Kimmel for 15 of their 17 head-to-head weeks. In total viewers, Jay has out-delivered Late Show for 28 weeks in a row and Kimmel for 17 of 17 weeks.”

It’s almost as if Leno himself were writing this material -- and not the network that plans to toss him a second time. Basically, NBC is putting out information that also could be headlined, “Our Guy Remains the Undisputed Heavyweight Champ, But We’re Still Dumb Enough to Throw Him Out of the Ring Anyway -- Just Like Last Time.”

In the latest ratings week, Leno’s Tonight averaged 3.4 million viewers according to the Nielsen Media Research numbers cited by NBC. Letterman ran second with 2.8 million viewers followed by Jimmy Kimmel’s 2.5 million.

Among 18-to-49-year-olds, Leno had 1.039 million, with Kimmel at 820,000 and Letterman with 760,000. NBC says it was Leno’s biggest margin over Kimmel in three weeks.

Interestingly, Leno also had more 18-to-49-year-olds watching him last week than Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (889,000) and The Colbert Report (762,000) and TBS’ Conan (508,000). All of the late-nighters were in first-run mode, save for a Friday Kimmel repeat, during the first full week of the May “sweeps,” which began on April 25th.

Leno just turned 63, with only Letterman an older guy in this universe. Fallon is 38, young enough to be Leno’s son. But he’s still pretty green as a talk show host, with just a little over four years under his belt. During that time, Fallon has excelled in impromptu bits with big-name talent that quickly go “viral” on youtube and elsewhere. But his monologues are still brief and, all in all, pretty lousy. And that’s Leno’s strength in the key keep-‘em-in-the-tent early stages of any late night talk show.

So what if Leno maintains his dominance -- or even builds on it as the date of his ouster draws nearer? Improbable as it sounds, could NBC get another case of the yips?

Whatever happens, Leno currently is showing that he’s still marketable if he chooses to set sail on another network. Fox came close to signing Conan O’Brien, but in the end couldn’t close the deal with some of its most important affiliate stations. Would Leno be seen as a more proven quantity, with perhaps five more years left in the tank?

Or is it even remotely possible that CBS would turn to Leno, keep his show in L.A. and put Letterman, 66, out to pasture after years of losing to Leno? Stranger things have happened in late night. And the way Leno is performing, they might just keep happening.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net