Conan O’Brien goes out on top

Finale numbers are best of 'Tonight Show' tenure

Conan O’Brien went out with a roar on Friday night.

The final episode of NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” scored big with adults 18-49 — averaging a 4.8 rating in Nielsen’s 25 local markets with People Meters. That’s a huge leap over his national season average in the demo (1.1).

O’Brien also beat everything that aired in primetime on Friday night (which, granted, was filled mostly with the “Hope for Haiti” telethon on all four major nets) and also posted his best numbers since taking over “Tonight” seven months ago.

O’Brien’s final week may have greatly advanced his cause in landing a new home, such as Fox.

Although clearing a latenight yakker on Fox remains a hefty challenge, net execs appear more bullish on the idea than they might have been a few weeks ago. Fox’s owned stations are crunching the numbers on whether replacing 11 p.m. off-net sitcoms with O’Brien makes sense, while discussions have taken place between the net and its affiliate board on whether such a move is viable.

O’Brien on Fox is by no means a slam dunk. But the host may prove to be a decent demo fit for the network — and could open up another daypart for Fox to promote its wares. (Fox execs frequently note how “American Idol” has proven to be a boon for other networks’ chat shows in timeslots — particularly in the morning — where Fox doesn’t program.)

On Friday, O’Brien dominated “Late Show With David Letterman,” which averaged a 0.6 among adults 18-49 in the 25 local People Meter markets, and helped “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” which scored a 2.3.

In the 55 national metered markets, O’Brien picked up a 7.0 overnight rating/16 share — virtually identical to his launch rating last June (7.1/16) and an enormous advantage over Friday night’s Letterman ratings (2.5/5).

The metered-market numbers also dwarfed O’Brien’s farewell appearance on “Late Night” in February 2009 (2.6). But it didn’t quite reach Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show’ finale last May, which posted a big 8.8 household rating/20 share in Nielsen’s metered-market overnights.

Back in 1992, Johnny Carson wrapped his 30-year “Tonight Show” tenure with a 31.9 rating/62 share in the metered markets.

Complete ratings for O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show” will be available next week.

O’Brien’s 1.1 average means the host also exits on top in the adults 18-49 demo, slightly above Letterman and “Nightline” (tied at a 1.0, season to date).

At least 100 dedicated O’Brien fans braved the cold and the rain early Friday morning to try and grab a standby seat for Friday night’s “Tonight Show” finale. According to NBC, some camped out all night — during one of the wettest and coldest nights of the year in Southern California.

Lucky fans were treated to a finale that included Tom Hanks and Neil Young (who sang “Long May You Run”). For his show ender, O’Brien strapped on a guitar and joined Will Ferrell — dressed as a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd — to perform “Free Bird.” Steve Carell made an appearance as well, while Beck, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Ben Harper joined Max Weinberg and the “Tonight Show” band as Ferrell’s all-star backups.

Before bringing out final guest Will Ferrell, O’Brien — his voice slightly overcome with emotion — talked about his departure, and his state of mind through the sudden turn of events.

“Walking away from ‘The Tonight Show’ is the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” he said. “Making this choice has been enormously difficult. This is the best job in the world, I absolutely love doing it, and I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium.

“But despite this sense of loss, I really feel this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting ‘The Tonight Show’ and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”

O’Brien also urged his fans not to be cynical — and put it all in perspective: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

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