Leno prevails over Letterman, 'Nightline'

If premiere week is any indication, the latenight ratings race is tighter than it’s ever been.

NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” has opened the season as the top latenight draw in young adults, but ABC’s “Nightline” and CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” weren’t far behind. That’s quite a reversal from a year ago, when “Tonight” (with Conan O’Brien as host) was the No. 3 latenight broadcast show in adults 18-49 and wasn’t even competitive in total viewers.

It may take a few weeks to gauge a true level for Leno and Letterman since guest stunts and the performance of networks in primetime during premiere week can skew results. And the race figures to get even more interesting in November when O’Brien’s new latenight show, “Conan,” bows on TBS (airing from 11 p.m. to midnight).

Although Leno wasn’t dominant last week, as he often was during his 17-year run as “Tonight” host,NBC must be happy to be back on top to start the season.

Nielsen estimates that “The Tonight Show” averaged 1.33 million adults 18-49 during the week of Sept. 20-24, up 3% over last year with O’Brien and enough to top ABC’s half-hour “Nightline” (1.25 million, down 17%) and CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” (1.24 million, down 25%), which was boosted last year by President Obama’s guest appearance.

The race was equally tight in total viewers, with “Tonight” averaging 3.80 million (up a whopping 58% year to year), followed by “Late Show” (3.78 million, down 25%) and “Nightline” (3.62 million, down 15%). “Late Show” held the narrow advantage in adults 25-54 (1.62 million to 1.56 million for “Nightline” and 1.55 million for “Tonight”).

At 12:35 a.m., NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” averaged 830,000 adults 18-49 (flat vs. last year) to 650,000 for CBS’ “Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson” (down 20%); both averaged about 1.8 million viewers overall. ABC’s 12:05 a.m. hourlong “Jimmy Kimmel Live” averaged 730,000 adults 18-49 and 1.7 million viewers overall (off 7% in both vs. last year).

CBS had the advantage in the 10:30 p.m. half-hour slot, with a 3.0 rating in 18-49 to a 2.1 for both ABC and NBC. In total viewers, CBS averaged 13.4 million to 7.5 million for ABC and 6.5 million for NBC.

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