When Jay Leno retires from The Tonight Show (again) next February to make way for Jimmy Fallon, he will be leaving — at least according to the ratings — as the king of late-night television. And assuming ratings stay steady, Leno’s 22-year run in the legendary NBC post — interrupted, of course, by a seven-month vacation at the 10 p.m. spot while Conan O’Brien tried his hand at the big job in 2009 — will be highlighted by 18 years of viewership victories over his rival at CBS, David Letterman, and the various shows ABC has placed in the 11:30 position (mostly Nightline).
But for a man who so consistently pulls in more viewers than any other late-night host in television, he sure seems unpopular; Leno is hated by critics, is a regular target of fellow comedians for his brand of humor and rivalry with David Letterman, and he lost young audiences after the drama surrounding O’Brien three years ago.
So the question is, who is watching Jay Leno? Where? And what does his No. 1 status really mean? BuzzFeed took a dive into the demographic breakdowns of TV ratings to try to figure it out.
The numbers indicate that Leno’s most loyal viewers are older, skew male, and live far from the coasts.
In an analysis of a stretch that spanned the first five months of this year and used industry-standard numbers provided by NBC, Leno, Letterman, and the ABC host Jimmy Kimmel — who moved from midnight to 11:30 at the beginning of 2013 — showed strengths in different places. Leno won nearly every age group and gender combination, but some were much closer than others. It should be noted that he averages about 3.5 million viewers overall, an indicator of just how far late-night broadcast comedy has fallen: Less than six years ago, he was pulling in over 5 million viewers a week.
In the advertiser-favored 18-to-49 demographic, Leno had a .81 (meaning .81% of TVs on at that time were tuned into his show), while Kimmel took in a .72 and Letterman a .68.
Note: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert actually outpace the broadcast hosts in this demographic; Stewart, on at 11 p.m., had a 1.1.
Tighten the window a bit, to 18 to 34, and you see a sizable shift: Leno leads Kimmel by the slightest of margins — .48 to .47 — while Letterman comes in with a .41.
Meanwhile, Kimmel and Leno tie for women 35 to 49, with 1.28 each (Letterman is at 1.15), and Kimmel actually edges Leno with women 18 to 34, with .56 to Leno’s .55. He also wins 18-49, .9 to .89 (Letterman is .79).
Leno dominates among women over 50.
Men, on the other hand, are all Leno’s. He has a .4 to Kimmel’s .38 and Letterman’s .34 among 18- to 34-year-olds, then shoots up to a 1.10 (Letterman at .82, Kimmel .73) in 35 to 49. The 50+ demo is even more skewed.
Geographically, Leno’s biggest markets in the first three months of the year were Richmond, Detroit, and Pittsburgh; Letterman dominates Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. Kimmel, who at 45 is by far the youngest of the three hosts, is tops in major markets like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
These geographic differences are more complicated than just regional taste, though; New York’s WABC-TV, for example, has the highest-rated local newscast at 11 p.m., which gives Kimmel an advantage in that he immediately follows that local broadcast. Letterman, as it turns out, racks up a mind-boggling ratings victory in Columbus because he airs on the top CBS affiliate in the country.
Still, an obvious trend emerges: The cities and young people like Kimmel, and the older and more inland populations prefer Leno, which is why the network is switching over to the younger Jimmy Fallon early next year. At the same time, the broadcast networks continue to lose viewers as a whole, with the growth of cable talk shows, alternative programming and Netflix.
Below, check out a map of the top 25 TV markets in America, broken down by which host is best rated in the area.