Jay Leno pumped his ratings muscles one last time for NBC on Thursday night, ending his 22-year run as “The Tonight Show” host with an audience of 14.6 million.
It was the biggest audience for the show since May 14, 1998, when Jerry Seinfeld was the guest on the night of the “Seinfeld” finale. That show had nearly 15 million viewers.
Thursday night, Leno benefited from a big audience for NBC’s first night of coverage of the Winter Olympics, which attracted 20 million viewers. By contrast, the “Seinfeld” finale pulled in 76 million viewers.
Leno’s emotional finale also easily surpassed the number for his last goodbye to “Tonight” in May 2009, when he was simply moving (temporarily, as it turned out) to prime time on NBC. The audience that night was 11.9 million. It also topped the finale of Conan O’Brien’s brief run on the show. In January 2010, that finale averaged 10.3 million.
O’Brien demonstrated then, however, as he has since, that he has special appeal to the younger viewers that many late-night advertisers prefer. O’Brien’s final “Tonight” show scored a 4.4 rating among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49.
Thursday night, Leno had a much bigger, but clearly older, crowd. His rating in the 18-49 category was a 3.8.
Leno had larger audiences only three times. His largest audience came the night of the “Cheers” finale, when he had the entire cast of that top-rated sitcom as guests (most of them inebriated) and pulled in 22.4 million viewers. Second was his premiere in 1992, when the audience topped out at 16.1 million. Then came the “Seinfeld” show in 1998.
The huge numbers lifted Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” show to its best performance in its regular time period, with slightly more than 6 million viewers.