NEW YORK — The critics savaged Jay Leno's prime-time experiment. Viewers gave it the biggest audience for an entertainment show since the "American Idol" finale in May.
What's next is anybody's guess.
An estimated 18.4 million viewers sampled the first night of "The Jay Leno Show" Monday, Nielsen Media Research said. But the most hyped debut of the fall season had the added advantage of being piggybacked onto one of the country's biggest stories. Leno interviewed Kanye West about why he had interrupted Taylor Swift the night before on the MTV Video Music Awards.
The challenge will be holding on to viewers. Leno's variety show will air five nights a week at 10 p.m., a grand experiment for network television to see if NBC can build a profitable business competing with dramas on its network rivals.
"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 of NBC Universal Television Entertainment. "Our focus is on developing a consistent comedy viewing habit at 10 p.m. over the long haul."
NBC executives had other reasons to be cautious in their reaction. When Conan O'Brien debuted on the "Tonight" show last spring, NBC described him as the new king of late-night after one week of ratings, only to be embarrassed when O'Brien subsequently slipped behind David Letterman.
It's tough to gauge how much impact West's appearance had on the ratings. The show peaked in viewership during its second quarter-hour, during Jerry Seinfeld's appearance, Nielsen said. Only two other shows have drawn a larger prime-time audience since the summer months, NFL games that aired this past week, Nielsen said.
During his last season hosting "The Tonight Show," Leno averaged 5.2 million viewers to claim the No.1 spot in late-night. But critics – never big fans of Leno – were harsh in their assessment of his new endeavor, finding it not much different from what he had been doing at 11:30 p.m. for 17 years.
Robert Bianco of USA Today slammed it as a "cut-rate, snooze-inducing rehashed bore."
The Associated Press' Frazier Moore identified "the biggest difference between Leno's new show and his old one: With his fade-out at 11 p.m., the local news began."
The Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara called the show "a strange, shallow puddle of comedy."
"This is the future of television?" she wrote. "This wasn't even a good rendition of television past."
"The future of `The Jay Leno Show' is likely to look almost exactly like `The Tonight Show' past," complained Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times. "So much ink has been devoted to describing how Mr. Leno's new show would depart from his old one that it was startling to see how little difference there was."
Leno found some love on social media sites. One fan wrote on Facebook: "Kanye West may still be the worst musician and person of all time, but the new `Jay Leno Show' was awesome."
Another fan on Twitter conceded that the new Leno was a rehash of the "Tonight" show. "What's wrong with that?" the person wrote. "I love it!"
One viewer tweeted, however, that he wished West had taken Leno's microphone instead of Swift's.
The biggest problem for Leno was that the show wasn't really funny, wrote St. Petersburg Times columnist Eric Deggans. "Who knew that might be the biggest challenge for a guy once known as the King of Late Night Comedy?" he said.
NBC is owned by General Electric.
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