Jay Leno’s Experiment to Earlier Time not Working; Move back to Late Night Slot

NBC’s disappointing experiment with Jay Leno’s prime-time show may end with Leno back in late-night and the venerable “Tonight Show” and its freshman host, Conan O’Brien, pushed to a midnight slot.

NBC executives on Thursday discussed a scenario that would include a half-hour Leno show at 11:35 p.m. EST, sending “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m. and Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” to 1:05 a.m., a person familiar with the discussions said on condition of anonymity over a lack of authority to address the issue publicly.

“The Jay Leno Show,” a nightly 10 p.m. talk and comedy program that debuted last fall, has drawn lackluster ratings and complaints from NBC affiliate stations that the show has provided a weaker lead-in for local late newscasts than past NBC series.

The proposed new lineup could go into effect after NBC concludes its Feb. 12-28 Winter Olympics coverage, the person told The Associated Press.

NBC declined comment.

Earlier Thursday, the network denied a report by the Web site FTV that Leno’s prime-time venture would end when the Olympics started. A subsequent TMZ Web site report said that he would reclaim the 11:35 p.m. EST time slot he occupied for 17 years that ended last May.

In a series of statements, the fourth-place network took pains to express support for both Leno and O’Brien.

“Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today,” NBC said. “As we have said all along, Jay’s show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network. It has, however, presented some issues for our affiliates. Both Jay and the show are committed to working closely with them to find ways to improve the performance.”

While this statement didn’t clearly refute the Web reports that Leno’s show would be dropped, a clarification from NBC executives denied “The Jay Leno Show” has been canceled.

Thursday night, another NBC statement expressed the network’s commitment “to keeping Conan O’Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers on television.”

During his monologue Thursday, Leno milked some laughs from the “rumor floating around that we were canceled. I heard it coming in this morning on the radio. So far, no one has said anything to me.”

But if it’s true, he joked, “it will give us time to do some traveling. I understand that (the) Fox (network) is beautiful this time of year.”

“I don’t think there is any truth to the rumors,” he went on, referring to his frontrunner status in the ratings when NBC took him off “The Tonight Show.”

“See, it’s always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you’re in first place,” Leno cracked. “So we are fine. We are OK.”

O’Brien, who has attracted a smaller if younger audience than Leno did as “Tonight” host, made no mention of the scuttlebutt in his monologue.

On Thursday, the rumors surrounding Leno’s fate left industry analyst Shari Anne Brill mystified.

“For me, the big question is what is going to happen at 10 p.m. going forward,” Brill said, “because that’s a critical time period to promote the late local news, and it was the affiliates’ dissatisfaction with their lower audience numbers that was the catalyst for speculation on this purported move (for Leno) into late-night.”

“The unsolved mystery is what happens at 10 p.m.” said Brill of Carat USA.

What sparked Thursday’s flurry of Web reports was unclear, but coincided with reports this week that NBC has as many as 18 pilots for prospective new series — presumably more than would be needed to replenish a prime-time schedule for a network that expected to continue filling five hours weekly with Leno’s show.

The speculation may also be a run-up to the winter Television Critics Association meeting, which begins this weekend in Pasadena. At this annual conclave, network programming initiatives are unveiled for media reporters. In turn, reporters have a forum to grill network brass on programming questions. NBC’s session is scheduled for Sunday.

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