Leno winning, losing late-night

Jay leno UPDATED: Can Jay Leno win and lose at the same time?

The latest ratings have the "Tonight Show" host winning the late-night battle, but struggling to conquer the long-term war.

"Tonight Show" (4.4 million viewers, 1.2 adults 18-49 rating) led the late-night crop last week among total viewers and the adult demo, beating CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" (3.8 million, 1.0).

Then there's the nagging comparisons with Conan O’Brien and Leno’s own performance from last year.

For the second and third weeks since his return to late-night, Leno is down from comparable dates in 2009, slipping 13% in the demo and 3% in viewers. The concern here is that not all of Leno's audience has returned to the show. Also, this week Leno's median age is 56 years old (Letterman's is 54; Conan O'Brien averaged 46).

Another key for the industry to perceive that NBC made the correct choice by keeping Leno is for the "Tonight" host to stay above O’Brien’s ratings during his tenure as "Tonight" host.

Yet for the past couple weeks, Leno has barely topped O'Brien's average -- 1.2 to O’Brien’s 1.1 -- despite O'Brien having endured an inferior lead-in during the 10 p.m. hour (Jay Leno himself, with his short-lived primetime effort). This gap between hosts is a bit bigger, however, if one uses O'Brien's fourth-quarter rating of 1.0, before his impending exit caused his numbers to climb.

NBC wants to avoid ending up with a "Tonight Show" that has about the same rating as O'Brien despite a better lead-in -- and with a decade-older audience.

Meanwhile, at 12:35, the race is much tighter than the earlier hour -- NBC’s "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (1.7 million, 0.6) tied the demo with CBS’ "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" (1.8 million, 0.6).