NBC: Great job on the Olympics. Now comes the hard part

jay-leno-lauren-graham.jpgThe Winter Olympics, capped by the most-watched hockey game in the United States in 30 years, were a big success for NBC.

The average prime-time audience for the games was 24.4 million people per night -- an improvement of 21 percent over the 2006 Winter Olympics -- and the network says that 190 million Americans (more than 60 percent of the population) watched at least a little bit of the competition over its 17 days.

They're great numbers all around, but now that the Peacock has packed up and left Vancouver, it will probably go back to being a fourth-place network starting Monday night (March 1). Its prospects are probably a little better than they were a month ago, but a turnaround is not going to happen overnight.

In the recent past, the viewers who flocked to the Olympics haven't tended to stay around in great numbers after the games ended. Shows like "Parenthood" and "The Marriage Ref," which got heavy promotional pushes during the games, may get a temporary bump in ratings ("Ref" premiered to 14 million-plus viewers on Sunday), but there hasn't been a big hit launched out of the Olympics in some time.

The biggest change for NBC starting this week will be the return of the 10 o'clock hour to more conventional programming and Jay Leno to "The Tonight Show." The good news is that NBC should make some gains at 10 over "The Jay Leno Show" -- because really, it'd be hard not to.

"Law & Order," which is moving to 10 p.m. Mondays, has averaged 7.9 million viewers and a 1.7 rating in adults 18-49 this season -- and now that it's moved off Friday nights, both numbers stand to improve a bit. Even so, its current averages are better than Leno's Monday average of 5.7 million viewers and a 1.6 in the demo.

"Law & Order: SVU" is moving from 9 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays. It's averaging 8.9 million viewers per week and a 2.8 in the 18-49 demo, significantly higher than Leno on Wednesday (5.4 million, 1.6). "Parenthood" could easily move into second place on Tuesday nights, ahead of ABC's underperforming "The Forgotten."

As for Leno's return to "The Tonight Show," even if he doesn't reclaim the late-night lead from David Letterman right away, he's likely to bring enough of his old fans back into the fold not to make NBC look doubly bad for parting ways with Conan O'Brien.

Evidence of NBC's progress (or lack thereof) will come our way Tuesday when the ratings roll in.

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Related:

'Parenthood' review: NBC's 10 p.m. comeback starts here
NBC's post-Leno prime-time schedule
NBC extends 'SVU,' 'Parks and Rec' -- even 'Trauma'
Zap2it's Olympics coverage

Photo credits: NBC