Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Jay Leno’s farewell telecast on “The Tonight Show” drew 14.6 million viewers, his biggest audience in more than 15 years.
The program, which aired at 11:30 p.m. in New York, attracted the most viewers since May 14, 1998, when Jerry Seinfeld appeared after his own show’s finale, NBC said today in an e-mailed statement.
The 63-year-old entertainer bows out as the most-watched late-night host, a crown he’s held for much of his 22 years in the job previously held by Johnny Carson. Leno hands his duties off to Jimmy Fallon, who moves into the spot on Feb. 17 and is relocating “The Tonight Show” to New York from Los Angeles.
“This has been the greatest 22 years of my life,” Leno told the audience. “I am the luckiest guy in the world. I got to meet presidents, astronauts, movie stars.”
The audience was the fourth-biggest ever for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” NBC said. The record is 22.4 million on May 20, 1993, after the “Cheers” series finale, according to the network. Leno drew 16.1 million in his first outing as the program’s regular host on May 25, 1992.
Leno leaves the show on top. So far this season, “The Tonight Show” is averaging 3.95 million viewers, while CBS Corp.’s “Late Show with David Letterman” is drawing 2.95 million and “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” from Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, has 2.61 million, according to Nielsen data.
The finale was Leno’s second farewell to viewers of “The Tonight Show.” He left in 2009, handing the reins to Conan O’Brien, only to return in March 2010.
“NBC has the Olympics. It’s kind of a big deal,” O’Brien said last night in the monologue of his late-night show on Time Warner Inc.’s TBS. “NBC will finally get to show somebody who is OK passing the torch.”
Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks were Leno’s final “Tonight Show” guests, while Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Carol Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, Kim Kardashian and Chris Paul made appearances. The program also featured taped messages from Fallon, Bob Costas, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Sheen and President Barack Obama.
The network will use its coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to promote “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” before the new host takes over.
Comcast Corp., parent of NBC, rose 1.1 percent to $54.64 at the close in New York. Shares of the company, the largest U.S. cable-TV provider, have gained 41 percent in the past year.
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