NBC gearing up for post-O'Brien schedule

Network hopes to regain late-night crown, rebuild 10 p.m. slot

Get ready for the Peacock to change its plumage again.

On Monday, the broadcast network will launch its latest programming revolution (NBC 3.5? 4.0?), a back-to-basics model that attempts to return to a status quo that executives moved mountains to change last year.

Jay Leno is moving back to 11:35 p.m. hosting "The Tonight Show." Scripted programming is returning to 10 p.m. New shows like "The Marriage Ref" and "Parenthood" represent the first of many new efforts coming down the network's suddenly stuffed development pipeline.

But can the broadcast Humpty Dumpty put all its pieces back together?

The first key is late-night. NBC used to own the space in what seemed to be effortless weekly victories under the older-younger tag-team of Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. Now with Leno returning to "Tonight" after a slew of disparaging press and a still-green Jimmy Fallon taking over "Late Night," it's not clear if NBC can reclaim the two-hour block.

Given their inherent audience bases, Leno is considered very likely to win over Letterman in the adult demo, but expect a tighter fight among total viewers. Letterman has improved on this front since he last faced Leno, growing slightly this season. Also, the battle between Fallon and CBS' Craig Ferguson should continue to be tighter than Fallon vs. O'Brien last year, though the strength of Leno at 11:35 should make Fallon a more formidable opponent.

One thing is for certain: Leno will be fortunate not to have himself as a 10 p.m. lead-in.

The race in primetime is far less certain.

Thanks to the Winter Olympics, NBC has surged into third place for the broadcast season -- giving the network an outside shot at ending its fourth-place losing streak this year.

The Olympics has historically not provided a significant boost to entertainment programming, yet NBC should at least be able to drive a large number of viewers into the premiere of "The Marriage Ref" after the closing ceremony on Sunday evening. Also, the network has heavily promoted Tuesday's premiere of "Parenthood," which ought to generate some additional sampling of the new drama.

"The race in primetime will not shift to NBC when the Olympics are not in the calculations," Bill Carroll of Katz TV Group predicts. "The differences between networks are more impacted by 'Idol', the Oscars and the Final Four than the 10 p.m. programs on NBC, though they will keep the race for prime audience closer among all the networks."
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