Conan O'Brien has reason to smile after his debut as "Tonight" show host. His first Nielsen Media Research report card showed a 7.1 rating and 17 audience share in the nation's biggest media markets. Those numbers indicate more people checked out O'Brien's show out than watched David Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS and ABC's "Nightline" combined.
"We were very happy," said O'Brien's boss, Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Movie Studios.
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The trick is the second night, and the third — and the hundreds more likely to come.
O'Brien set himself apart early from predecessor Jay Leno with his reliance on taped comedy bits, but that approach drew some mixed reviews from the critics.
"I just wish O'Brien had shown more nerve on his opening night," said David Zurawik, The (Baltimore) Sun TV critic.
O'Brien's Nielsen numbers were 19 percent lower than Leno's farewell Friday night, which had an 8.8 rating and 20 share. History suggests goodbyes draw more interest than hellos, even if Leno's exit is only temporary. (He hosts a prime-time weeknight show starting in September.) Leno drew more than 16 million viewers to his 1993 debut replacing Johnny Carson; Carson's farewell was seen by 41 million people.
A typical "Tonight" show this season had a 4.0 rating. Each ratings point represents 1 percent of the nation's homes with TV, which means 7 percent of homes had someone watching O'Brien on NBC. The audience share is the percentage of televisions on at a given time; 17 percent were tuned to O'Brien.
Critical reaction was mixed
O'Brien opened his show with an extended segment supposedly showing him running across the country from New York to Los Angeles, only to realize when he got there he had forgotten his keys. Separate taped bits also had him commandeering a tram full of tourists on the Universal lot and driving his Ford Taurus in his adopted, auto-obsessed hometown.
The Washington Post critic Tom Shales said it wasn't encouraging seeing O'Brien devoting the entire first half of his debut to himself.
Newsday's Verne Gay said opening-night jitters were apparent.
"The first night of what will probably be the first night of the rest of Conan O'Brien's professional life was not a disaster," Gay wrote. "Not at all. But it was far from a success ... A few million `Tonight' show habitues turned to their spouses and said, `tell me AGAIN Mabel why NBC dumped Leno for this guy?'"
Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker said the debut was "glitzy, glamorous fun" and that the taped material showed how much planning O'Brien is putting into the show.
Silverman said he was optimistic that O'Brien can keep NBC ahead of its chief late-night competitor, Letterman. O'Brien is 46; Letterman 62.
"I'm hoping that Conan's youth and smart sense of humor and kind of transparent kindness comes across," he said. "I think that comes through with Fallon and Leno, too. These are genuinely kind people that care about the people around them."