'Leno' Will Face 10 p.m. Showdown

New strip starts strong, tapers ahead of premiere-week challenge

The most-anticipated premiere of the fall season, NBC's The Jay Leno Show, got off to a predictable start last week. It opened big, pulling in 18 million viewers and a 5.3 rating among the ad-coveted 18-49 demographic—thanks largely to having advance-booked hip-hop star Kanye West, who became the media stooge du jour for his outburst at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 13.

At presstime, the show had won its time period Monday through Thursday. But Leno fell 40% in total viewers and 36% in the demo (11.1 million viewers/3.4 rating) in its second episode. And by Thursday, Leno was down to 8.5 million viewers with a 2.7 demo rating, winning the time period in the demo but losing in total viewers to a rerun of The Mentalist.

This week, Leno will face season premieres of returning favorites including CBS' CSI: Miami and The Mentalist and ABC's Grey's Anatomy. (The 9 p.m. ABC drama will have a two-hour premiere Sept. 24.) It will also battle new entries such as The Good Wife from CBS on Tuesday and ABC's Eastwick on Wednesday.

“He's against something he's never faced before, even in late night,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “He's going to face counterprogramming. It's not just him and [David] Letterman.”

Half of NBC's Thursday-night comedies did well, facing new fare only on Fox. The Office season premiere grabbed 8 million viewers/4.0 rating, and new comedy Community held onto much of that lead-in with 7.6 million viewers/3.7 rating. But Parks and Recreation, which struggled last year, did not look any stronger in its second season debut Sept. 17, attracting fewer than 5 million viewers with a 2.1 in the demo.

The season premieres of Bones (10 million viewers/3.0 rating) and Fringe (7.9 million viewers/2.9 rating) Sept. 17 on Fox were disappointing, considering the network is banking on strong showings for returning dramas (House bows Sept. 21) to polish a perennially lackluster fall. New entry Glee was down in its third new episode Sept. 16, pulling in 6.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating in the demo against stiff competition from the finale of NBC's America's Got Talent.

As the 10 p.m. hour has become the time when many viewers watch shows they've recorded on DVR, the pressure is on the broadcast networks to get them to pay attention to 10 o'clock again. “10 o'clock has not been a very strong time period in recent years,” Adgate says.

NBC has not only positioned Leno as a topical alternative to scripted drama at 10 p.m. but sold him as DVR-proof.

“DVRs bring people in who wouldn't otherwise be there,” counters Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming for media buying firm Carat. Leno, Brill continues, is “the default to scripted series. If viewers don't want to see a scripted show, they'll probably go [to Leno]. People have their favorite dramas that they follow and they'll go there first, and when those dramas are in repeats or pre-empted, yeah, he'll have a better chance.”