Jay, ‘Bachelor’ bring in big ratings

CBS tops night, while ABC, NBC stand solid

NBC’s latenight sequel “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno: Episode II — Attack of the Chin” is off to a strong start.

One night after NBC wrapped its 17-night Winter Olympics run, its primetime lineup may have continued to struggle, but the net regained some of its latenight ratings mojo. Leno’s return to his 11:35 p.m. perch drew 6.6 million viewers and a 1.6 rating in adults 18-49, according to prelim Nielsens.

It’s hard to make much of one night’s numbers, but auds on Monday flocked to Jay Leno’s return as host of “The Tonight Show,” which dominated the competish as expected. Key going forward for NBC is to re-establish the 11:35 p.m. habit for fans of the host, who wrapped his short-lived run in primetime just last month.

But the real test comes in future weeks, after heightened interest in Leno’s return dies down (and the show exhausts its supply of former Alaskan governors).

Leno was set to kick off Tuesday’s “Tonight Show” with a cold open featuring Sarah Palin. Palin was also on tap to give her first full latenight chatfest interview (having previously appeared in a “Tonight Show” sketch when the show was hosted by Conan O’Brien).

Palin’s visit was sure to goose Leno’s second-night numbers, as there appears to be an insatiable curiosity about the former Alaska governor and veep candidate-turned-Fox News commentator. Palin was even the topic of conversation on “Late Show With David Letterman,” where guest Mitt Romney was asked about his potential rival.

“Be careful what you say about her, by the way,” Romney said to Letterman — who infamously had a run-in with Palin last year. “She has a rifle, you know.”

Leno’s Palin interview came a night after the host opened his “Tonight Show” redux with a cameo from Betty White.

Moving forward, Leno is likely to settle back down to numbers closer to his averages before his first term ended last year, and that may be enough to give the host back his advantage over Letterman.

What’s more, Leno will have an advantage that O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” didn’t have as of last September: He won’t have to follow “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. If NBC’s new 10 p.m. lineup improves over “Leno” — and by every indication, it should, given the early success of “The Marriage Ref” and the strong reviews for “Parenthood” — then the “Tonight Show” redux should do just fine.

Leno’s Monday numbers marked sizable improvements over the season-to-date average for “Tonight” with Conan O’Brien as host (1.1 in 18-49, 2.7 million viewers overall). The total-viewer gains are the most striking, as Leno has typically scored well among the 50-plus crowd while O’Brien did not.

But Leno’s return didn’t put much of a dent in the competition. CBS’ “Late Show” (1.1 in 18-49, 3.8 million viewers overall) was up a bit in the demo and down some in total viewers vs. its firstrun season average, and ABC’s “Nightline” (1.3 in 18-49, 4.1 million viewers overall) was up across the board, in part due to ABC’s young-adult pull in primetime with “The Bachelor.”

Leno’s “Tonight Show” relaunch rated higher than his final-season average on the program in 2008-09 (1.4 rating in 18-49, 5.2 million viewers) but commanded just a fraction of what “The Jay Leno Show” opened with last September (5.3 rating in 18-49, 18.4 million viewers overall). It also didn’t come close to O’Brien’s debut in the chair last June.

Going forward, NBC would likely consider it a success if “Tonight” can consistently stay ahead of “Late Show” in 18-49, as it did on a regular basis for most of Leno’s latenight run.

In primetime Monday, ABC prevailed behind the finale of “The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love” (5.3/14 in 18-49, 15.15m) and post-show spec “The Bachelor: After the Final Rose” (5.4/13, 13.91m). In both 18-49 and total viewers, finale score is the second best for the franchise in nine years.

CBS was a solid No. 2, and its comedies “Two and a Half Men” (5.7/14, 16.86m) and “The Big Bang Theory” (5.9/14, 15.73m) were the night’s top two programs in demos and total viewers. “Rules of Engagement” (3.4/9 in 18-49, 9.73m) made its return at 8:30, losing some ground from “How I Met Your Mother” (3.9/11, 10.37m) but improving the timeslot; overall, the Eye’s 8-10 p.m. comedy block was up across the board vs. the same week a year ago.

NBC’s “Chuck” (2.4/6, 6.70m) edged up some in its return, but “Law and Order” looked soft as it debuted on the night with a two-hour episode (2.0/5 in 18-49, 7.76m). Still, “L&O” improved upon both its Friday average and the net’s 10 p.m. Monday average this season (both 1.5 rating in 18-49).

Fox’s “24” (2.5/6, 8.63m) hit a season low, airing behind a repeat of “House” (2.1/6, 6.65m).