Kanye West helps boost Jay Leno to strong start with viewers; first show tops Nielsen ratings

BY RICHARD HUFF

DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

Jay Leno cleaned up Monday night.

The first outing of “The Jay Leno Show,” NBC’s answer to dramas everywhere else, was watched by an estimated 17.7 million viewers, the Nielsen Company said Tuesday.

That’s way up from the 6.9 million NBC has averaged Mondays at 10 p.m. with non-sports programming for the past year.

No shocker, it was the No.1 show for the night on any channel.

Leno benefited from a heavy promotional push for the show that began earlier this year, and, because by coincidence he had Kanye West booked to perform.

West, who wrecked Taylor Swift’s “2009 MTV Video Music Award” winning moment Sunday, was only supposed to perform with Jay-Z and Rhianna. But, his antics Sunday created a huge backlash and he agreed to sit for a short interview, where he apologized again.

Leno also benefited a little from weaker-than-normal competition. ABC aired the film “Dream Girls,” while CBS’ prime-time lineup was out of synch because of an overrun at the U.S. Open.

The show’s real challenges will happen next week when fresh episodes of fall series begin airing.

NBC officials have stressed throughout that the performance of the show wouldn’t be judged by one night, but rather a year.

“It’s great to launch this innovative new show with such strong initial sampling, but we realize this is just one night and that we’re going to build our business in this time period with ratings that will level out over time,” said Jeff Gaspin, chairman, NBC Universal Television Entertainment.

“Our focus is on delivering a great show and developing a consistent comedy viewing habit at 10 p.m. over the long haul.”

The comic, who was the host of NBC’s “Tonight Show” for 17 years before stepping aside in May, has argued that viewers wanted some comedy at 10 p.m., a time slot normally filled with dramas.

NBC also can save a boat-load by running Leno rather than dramas, which can cost upward of $2 million an hour, or $10 million a week. Leno makes about $30 million a year.

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