Report: NBC’s ‘Tonight Show’ Gamble Damaged the Brand

by | March 19, 2010 at 12:41 PM | Late Night, The Tonight Show, TV News

Jay Leno of 'The Tonight Show' (NBC)

Jay Leno of 'The Tonight Show' (NBC)

There’s no doubt NBC took a great gamble when it altered its schedule to reinstate Jay Leno as host of ‘The Tonight Show.’ Looking at ratings – and public opinion – it’s unclear whether that gamble is paying off. As it stands, the answer is looking like a big “no,” since the results so far are mixed.

Leno’s return to ‘The Tonight Show’ has had strong initial ratings, and the programs now airing in ‘The Jay Leno Show’s vacated spot at 10 p.m. have also seen a ratings boost. However, a new report claims more people view Jay Leno in a negative light than ever, indicating the brand has been damaged.

NBC’s experimentation, of course, began last year, when they decided to give Leno his own prime-time show and made Conan O’Brien the host of its long-standing late-night franchise. That turned into a complete disaster.

Not only was it a ratings fiasco but the publicity also turned into a nightmare, with Leno getting blasted for “stealing” O’Brien’s job, and O’Brien getting creamed for being a poor replacement choice. Though Leno came out on top during his first week back, a week that included high-profile guests like Sarah Palin, his numbers have slipped along the way.

Leno’s first week back brought in about 5.7 million viewers, which means he definitely squashed rival David Letterman’s ‘Late Show‘ and its 3.7 million. Since then, however, there’s been a bit of a decline: Leno’s now only bringing in an estimated 4.4 million, still up over Letterman’s estimated 3.8 million. Though Leno’s certainly coming out on top, the average age of his viewers is far lower than those brought in by O’Brien. While O’Brien’s viewer average came in at 46, Leno’s is closer to 56, two years above Letterman’s average of 54.

Despite the relatively strong numbers, Leno’s still not doing that much better than his short-lived predecessor. O’Brien had about 1.1 ratings from adults ages 18-49, a key demographic, while Leno’s pulling in around 1.2. O’Brien, it’s worth noting, had a weaker lead-in than Leno. The biggest indicator that NBC may be losing, however, comes in the form of ever-important opinion polls.

Though the number of people who have a favorable opinion of Leno hasn’t changed that much since the scandal – about 19% of people think positively about the comedian, down somewhat from 21% last summer – the number of people who have a negative opinion about Jay Leno has dramatically increased from 26 to 35%.

Jeff Bercovici of Daily Finance notes that this “strongly suggests that the negative press Leno received during the weeks the conflict was playing out…had an effect.” Whether Leno can overcome these numbers remains to be seen.

NBC does have one definitive positive, however: It’s 10 p.m. time slot, which suffered terribly under Leno’s reign, has improved a whopping 45% since it began airing more traditional programming, like ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ And that, at the very least, could help persuade advertisers back to the peacock network.

Watch Thursday Night’s ‘Tonight Show’ Featuring Guest Janet Jackson Below: