'Jay Leno Show' future uncertain

NBC considering moving the host to his former 11:35 p.m. slot

Are Jay Leno's days in primetime numbered?

The future of NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" is in question as Web reports Thursday triggered all sorts of scenarios for the troubled program.

What is clear is that the network is reconsidering its commitment to Leno at 10 p.m., with moving him back to late-night being a credible option.

In such a scenario, Leno would return to 11:35 p.m. for a half-hour program, with Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon shifting back a half-hour to 12:05 a.m. and 1:05 a.m., respectively. If he agrees to the plan, O'Brien would retain the "Tonight Show" name for his show.

TMZ first reported the possibility of a shift, saying the move will happen after next month's Winter Olympics, which pre-empt NBC's primetime programming for two weeks. NBC did not deny such a possibility.

But the time-period shift scenario would require NBC to fill five primetime hours very quickly.

The Peacock has ramped up development for next season with plans to order 18 pilots, including 10 dramas, but the new series would not be ready before summer. NBC also has several reality shows ready to roll, but such programs normally are designed to air from 8-10 p.m.

In any case, the rumors have roiled the industry: Eyebrows have been raised not only because NBC would be considering reversing its Leno plan but because it would be making such a drastic move in a few weeks. But looming for NBC is its Jan. 21 affiliate meeting, where it would face disgruntled station owners whose late newscasts were hit hard by the anemic "Leno" lead-in, and, in unfortunate timing, the network's Sunday session at the TV Critics Assn. press tour, where its top executives undoubtedly will be barraged with Leno questions.

Any change on "Leno" would represent an embarrassing about-face after NBC's numerous public statements pledging to give Leno months, even years, to grow into the slot; the net always emphasized that the show was a 52-week strategy.

The retreat also could represent a serious blow to NBC's executive leadership as its ownership shifts from GE to Comcast, especially since "Leno" impacted the network precisely as industry experts predicted -- and performed in its time period precisely as network execs repeatedly claimed that they anticipated, including in a statement Thursday morning.

That wasn't lost on Leno, who took a series of shots at NBC in his monologue Thursday night including, "What does NBC stand for -- never believe your contract?" He also suggested he might switch networks. "If we did get canceled, it will give us time to do some traveling," he said. "I understand that Fox is beautiful this time of year."

Some industry analysts and affiliate stations were downright elated by the news that the Peacock would shift the show out of its 10 p.m. slot.

"While NBC can be credited with a new approach to primetime programming, the ratings results were untenable not just for the network but for its partner affiliates," John Rash of Campbell Mithun said. "If the show is canceled, it's best to do it now in order to closely collaborate with the creative community to develop dramas for the 10 p.m. time slot as well as address the programming problems that now exist in late-night as well."

Bill Campbell of Katz TV stations added, "Stations have always believed that Jay Leno was best positioned in the 11:30 p.m. slot and would be happy to see a potentially stronger lead-in to their late local newscasts."

Thursday was rife with rampant Web speculation about the future of Leno and O'Brien following an early post on FTLive.com claiming that NBC was "pulling the plug" on Leno's primetime show and TMZ's subsequent time-shift story. That forced NBC to issue two statements, one denying that "Leno" was canceled but acknowledging that "it has presented some issues for our affiliates" and the other stating that the network brass "remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC."
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