Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ Audience Biggest Since Johnny Carson’s Exit

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

NBC's final ratings for host's first-week larger than reported

There was a lot of curiosity in the premiere week of Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show,” and that includes nearly 2 million viewers who caught up within a few days via DVR playback. As a result, the venerable NBC program delivered its largest audience — 10.42 million — since the final week of Johnny Carson as host in 1992.

In Nielsen’s  preliminary “live plus three day” results released Thursday, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” padded its earlier-reported same-night numbers for the week of Feb. 17-21 — growing 29% from a 2.8 “live plus same-day” rating in adults 18-49 to a 3.6 with three days of time-shifted viewing included. And in total viewers, it grew 23% (from 8.493 million to 10.418 million).

The last time “The Tonight Show” drew more viewers for a week came well before the era of DVR time-shifting, as the final week of Johnny Carson’s run in May 1992 averaged a whopping 19.453 million viewers. In adults 18-49, the 3.6 rating is the highest for “Tonight” since the week of the “Seinfeld” finale in May 1998 (3.7 rating).

NBC also was able to achieve its goal of bringing younger viewers to “Tonight,” as the program’s median age during Fallon’s first week (52.6 years) was the youngest for any week this season for “Tonight,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” or CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.”

Prior to Fallon’s premiere, the median age for “The Tonight Show” this season was 58.1. For the season, Kimmel’s median age is 54.2, while Letterman’s is 58.7.

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  1. Bobby Dias says:

    During my three years of my half half-hour of The Tonight Show With Jack Paar my average was 30.7 million, the peak was the show that Louis Armstrong would sing It’s A Wonderful World- 34.2 million. Johnny Carson was dull compared to me- mainly because he had to read cue cards not make up things like me as I went.

  2. Alan says:

    It’s the old Jimmy Fallon show in the Tonight Show slot. I would like to see them move the Jimmy Kimmel show into the same time slot.

  3. dili says:

    Fallon is boring. Leno is going to be hard to replace (and I’m a young guy saying this). O’Brien has more charisma than Fallon…in fact, all the others do. Fallon is a nice guy but I don’t see him lasting. Even Kimmel is better.

  4. I’ve watched Fallen on Late Night for years now. Frankly I was getting bored with his stuff. He just keeps doing the same thing over and over. Now he has the Tonight Show and, unsurprisingly, it is just Late Night with a different name. It’s boring and repetitious. And juvenile.

  5. Ansley says:

    Loving Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show! Fresh, funny, kind to guests, not awkward at all, after his great run on Late Night. I wish him the best. I think he’s working hard to bring a great show every night.

  6. clazzy says:

    Kimmel is a super nice guy… not funny… too jumpy… and too juvenile with his games and funzy wunzy skits. He wont last! Cant take it.. Bring Jay back! PLEASE

  7. Marcia Bader says:

    Jimmy Fallon is what the Tonight Show needed. He has what it takes to entertain everyone at any age. I have sons in their thirty’s. When I watch Fallon it’s like I’m watching my kid up there. He quick funny and I love his skits. Who remembers Johnny Carson’s famous Tomahawk throw. His laughter is infectious. The set is amazing and as a New Yorker I think it just fabulous. The blue curtains make Fallon’s entrance like the old days when Johnny would come out to do his monologue. Yes he has great shoes to fill. Jimmy Fallon is up there living his dream. Just keep watching and you will see. Times they are a changing and with social media in the mix he is a very creative comic. So this is how it goes watch the show. What I adore about Jimmy Fallon his humor is totally sincere.

  8. Joseph Marino says:

    I am old and a Leno fan. But I have not missed on Fallon show! Reason? Jimmy Fallon is funny! It has nothing to do with age. Funny is funny.

    • Bobby Dias says:

      Age is not a factor. Me at ages 11-14 years old, averaged 30.7 million for my half-hours of The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. That is three times Johnny Carson’s best one night.

    • billy says:

      well your right..any age, because most of his stuff is juvenile humor and this SNL skit stuff will get old pretty quick…at least with me…boring..

  9. Philo Farnsworth says:

    But can he sustain these types of numbers is the question…I like Fallon and think he will do well, but the older audience Leno could sustain is lost on most of Fallon’s social media related comedy and song parodies…

  10. Jimbo says:

    Old People (i.e., Boomers) dislike Fallon and cry for their Leno back. Face it Old People, your time is up. Get out of the way.

  11. Diane B says:


  12. deb says:

    I enjoyed watching Carson. He was the best. Jay is second best. Conan was an idiot and his jokes were for the kids. I watched Fallon. Not bad but not Leno. I wont be watching any more. NBC screwed Leno twice and yes Conan was the price and not Jay. And Fallon sidekick, not funny and keeps interrupting Fallon.

  13. Bob says:

    Fallon might make it, 20-30 something’s follow anyone the Democrats say “is cool.” Look at Ronan Farrow, he won the prestigious Cronkite award for journalistic excellence after only being on the job for three days!

    • Philo Farnsworth says:

      Are you kidding? Who why or how would anybody do that? 3 days??? We are talking about Woody and Mia’s kid Farrow right? I mean, he’s a bright kid…but 3 days is ridiculous…

  14. elliot gainway says:

    Did they ever count those that “taped” Carson’s show with VCRs? I used to regularly tape Carson and Letterman in the 80’s and watch them later and so did many I knew. Now Fallon’s number have dropped to 5 million for the second week. Quite a drop from the 10.5 of the first week. Pure curiosity!

  15. Charlie says:

    I thought the peak of the show was Steve Colbert, which only amplified they should have got someone like him. I think Fallon is a great man but I don’t understand how people think he’s funny. Reading this gave me a moment of feeling like I’m in the twilight zone.

  16. Pat Alexander says:

    I do not believe these numbers. Whoever praises this launch, must have been watching a different show than I did.

    Jay made it look easy. Although, even Jay was no Johnny Carson. (But he knew it.)

    I think Fallon is struggling. Check back in a month.

    “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

  17. As a 20-something I absolutely ADORE Fallon. I’ll watch the whole thing from start to finish, he inserts impersonations and funny physical comedy bits through out.

  18. Scot in Dallas says:

    I liked Leno, but the show was getting tired. Fallon has brought some spark back for me, and he looks like he’s enjoying every minute. We live in a different era than the Carson years. Audiences want to be constantly “entertained” and not just watch two people chatting. But I do hope we get some more variety of guests than the usual stars.

  19. Chris Lucas says:

    It’s a valid opinion, Jim. I disagree with some of it and agree with the rest. Leno was a far better interviewer than Fallon and he was a little more grounded (Fallon does go for insider jokes). -Leno’s Photo Booth, Jaywalking and Headlines bits were classically funny. All this takes nothing away from Fallon, who SHOULD bring his own style and personality to the table. But for the best in the biz, nobody was better than Johnny Carson.

  20. Jim says:

    I don’t think Jimmy Fallon is better than Jay Leno in any way. The tonight show used to be funny. Fallon is a lot less clever, and it seems like his show has a lot of insider banter. What did you learn about Will Smith? Nothing. What was he promoting? Fallon.

    The Tonight Show has morphed into a skit show. Games? Fun for people who play them. Fun for the audience? Why don’t you just watch your kid play monopoly? I can understand audience participation with hashtags, but not the hashtag skits. Thank you notes are about 1/3 funny, and none of it is as clever as Leno’s Headlines, Jaywalking, Photobooth, etc.

    I think comedy is harder to do than music.

    Here’s an example: Jerry Lewis used to sometimes guest host for Johnny Carson. He used to sing rather than tell jokes. Songs are what you’ve heard before. Comedy is not, at least on the tonight show.

    Now that I have seen the Tonight show with Fallon, I don’t watch it. Kimmel is funnier because his monologue is better.

    At 12:30, There was much less competition than at 11:30. You watched Fallon as a default, and even though I do like Craig Ferguson, I don’t find Jeff the Robot funny.

    I really miss Leno and his brand of just brilliant comedy. With Leno I could have my cake and eat it too, watching Fallon afterward.

    Now? I watch a movie on HBO, or go On Demand to watch something preferable instead of watching Fallon.

    As for Conan? You reap what you sow. That prick told the network that f he didn’t get the Tonight Show, he’d walk. So they pushed Jay out. Then they found out that Conan couldn’t compete, and advertisers complained. Jay did them a FAVOR by taking the Tonight Show back over.

    I haven’t watched Arsenio yet. I have always liked him.

    So there it is. Just one man’s opinion.

    • elliot gainway says:

      Sorry Jim, that’s not what happened with Conan. Please do your research before you call someone a “prick”. Conan was getting offers to do a 11:35/10:35 show at 3 times the money from FOX and ABC and to take over CBS’s Late, Late Show as well. NBC knew about these offers and that Conan was seriously thinking of taking one of them so they offered him the Tonight Show on a deferred plan because they didn’t want to lose him.

      Actually, it was Leno and his manager that gave this ultimatum to NBC in 1991 when CBS was offering Leno a 11:35 slot. Leno secretly made a deal with NBC behind Carson’s back to take over the show and then his manager planted stories in the press to try to push Carson out sooner. Leno wouldn’t have even been in that position if it wasn’t for Letterman and Carson and he stabbed them both in the back. Conan didn’t owe Leno a thing. So it is really Leno who was the “Prick”! Please read “The Late Shift” and “The War For Late Night” to get the full story.

      • elliot gainway says:

        Jim, You need to READ “The Late Shit” not just watch the movie. The movie left out many key points and things that happened. And you need to read “The War For Late Night” to know what happened to Conan.

        Yes, it was Leno’s manager that gave NBC the ultimatum but I find it hard to believe that Leno didn’t know and condone what she was doing. He’s not that naive. Letterman knew what kind of a person she was which is why he left her.

        If NBC “TOLD” Leno to move to 10pm than he is the most powerless star in TV and showbiz history. Do you think NBC or CBS could have told Carson or Letterman what to do? NBC “offered” Leno the 10pm slot to keep him from going to ABC.

        Leno would have probably been nowhere if Letterman hadn’t turned down the offer to take over the Tonight Show when Leno was doing so bad that first year.

      • billy says:

        Conana is bette suited for peewee’s playhouse with all his goofy weird humor…not fit for the big three, a niche guy..

      • Jim says:

        Hi Eliot –

        I saw the late shift. It was Leno’s manager who did those things – not Leno. And it was Conan who gave them an ultimatum – not Leno. While it’s true that Leno played both NBC and CBS, the fact was that he had to. It wasn’t an ultimatum that Leno gave NBC – he applied to the job just like everyone else, and they gave it to Leno. He also applied at CBS. You can’t blame him for wanting an already established viewing audience.

        Leno wasn’t coming from a 12:30 slot. Conan put the pressure on NBC, and NBC then TOLD Leno he had to take a 10:00 Prime Time slot. He was taking that spot being loyal to NBC.

        The fact is, they should have let Conan walk and left the Tonight Show alone.

        Johnny Carson was already leaving, and Leno went for it along with Dave. Do you think Leno wouldn’t have been on CBS if Letterman got the Tonight show?

        Yes, he would have.

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