Leno is Leader of the Late-Night Pack in His Final May Sweep

by | June 2, 2013 at 8:55 AM | Late Night, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, TV News

Still on top: Jay Leno's still the top dog in late-night TV, even as NBC prepares to replace him with Jimmy Fallon (Photo: NBC)

Late-night king Jay Leno dominated competitors David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel in May — Leno’s final May ratings sweep as host of “The Tonight Show.”

Leno, 63, averaged 3.5 million viewers on each night of the May ratings period, according to Nielsen numbers released as the month came to a close last week.

That was enough to give Leno a comfortable lead over his timeslot competitors at 11:35 p.m. eastern time: David Letterman, whose CBS “Late Show” averaged 2.8 million viewers per night, and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC, which averaged 2.5 million.

Leno also beat the competition in the age demographic that networks and advertisers covet most — men and women 18-49 — giving the lie to widespread assumptions that Leno holds little appeal for younger viewers.

Though his margin of victory was thin in the demo, Leno still managed to eke out a victory in the hotly contested age group as “The Tonight Show” scored a 0.8 rating in the demo. Jimmy Kimmel, 45, had a 0.7 and Letterman, 66, had a 0.6.

Jay’s mass appeal: Watch this Leno “Headlines” segment and see why Jay’s No. 1:

Our take: Why do we keep bringing you these periodic updates on how Leno is doing in the ratings? Because it’s too darned interesting to pass up: Here you have this guy who continues to comfortably maintain his position as the top dog in late-night TV, even as NBC prepares to replace him next winter with Jimmy Fallon — a plan that includes uprooting “The Tonight Show” from California and moving it to New York.

And a May ratings sweep is as good a time as any to update the late-night scorecard. Sweeps months — of which there are four each year — are the months in which the ratings really count for a network and, more importantly, its affiliate stations because the rates they charge for commercial time are based on the ratings they get during sweeps.

Thus, you have a situation at NBC with Leno where, once again, he’s performing in the ratings when they count the most. It’s something that Leno has always been shrewd about: Keeping the affiliates happy out in the heartland because they are the bedrock of the network and when they want to, they can assert an enormous amount of influence on network management — especially where programming decisions are concerned. We sometimes wonder: When the affiliates see how Leno is doing in the ratings, do they wholly support NBC’s plan to replace Leno with Fallon? We’re just askin’ …