A lot of people watched Jimmy Fallon begin his stint as host of The Tonight Show last night: the show pulled 11.3 million viewers according to Nielsen, 3.8 million of which were in the highly coveted 18-49 age demographic.
But that shouldn't surprise you, and you shouldn't care, either.
Last night's 11.3 million viewers is solid yet oddly predictable showing–because this has all happened before. Fallon’s 7.1 household rating last night was the same as Conan O’Brien’s first show hosting The Tonight Show in June 2009 (you could argue that Fallon's debut at 12:05 a.m. lowered his numbers, but Conan premiered in the summer, so it's probably a wash), and both fell short of each of Jay Leno’s farewell shows preceding their respective debuts. Leno’s most recent farewell topped 14.5 million viewers on February 6, proving, perhaps, that NBC’s latest transition is more about Leno leaving than Fallon taking over, just like it was with Conan.
Fallon’s ratings, much like the show itself, aren't shocking. It’s not as if last night was Fallon’s coming out party – not only has his helm-taking of The Tonight Show been well- and maybe even over-hyped by NBC, but Fallon is a known commodity by now. He's certainly not a no name, which had some critics reacting to the meet-and-greet feel of his first episode with a cocked eyebrow.
Also, Fallon had 5 years on SNL and 5 years at 12:30. The idea that some mythically huge "middle America" is just now meeting him is silly.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) February 18, 2014
I'm reacting not just to media but to Fallon's decision to open the show as if he was meeting his girlfriend's parents for the 1st time.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) February 18, 2014
The variables at play last night –Olympics lead-in, 12:05 a.m. air time, second Tonight Show debut in five years – render any attempts to read into the ratings pretty much null. Conan's debut was just as successful, and we all know how that turned out. After premiering high, Conan's ratings dropped precipitously and by fall 2009 approximately 2 million fewer people were watching him than watched Leno a year prior.
It was never really a question on whether he would make a strong debut (NBC all but ensured that he would), but rather how he'll do in the long-run. As James Hibberd writes for Entertainment Weekly:
The big test for Fallon, of course, is not in this heavily promoted post-Olympics premiere slot, but the weeks, months and years to come. It’s a cliche to write that a TV show’s ratings are a marathon not a sprint, but it’s a cliche that’s never more true than when analyzing late-night talk shows.
The biggest question, though, isn't how Fallon's ratings will end up. The question we all have to worry about is what ratings Leno will score in his third Tonight Show premiere. Because you know he's coming back. He always comes back.