NBC May Return Leno to Late-Night TV, Reversing Strategy

Some Affiliates Might Cheer, but New Questions Arise

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LAS VEGAS (AdAge.com) -- In a potential reversal for a strategy once heralded as a new programming model, NBC Universal is reportedly mulling returning Jay Leno to his old "Tonight Show" roost at 11:30 p.m. from his current slot at 10 p.m.

Jay Leno
Jay Leno Credit: NBC
TMZ.com, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported today that the Peacock network had been evaluating the status of "The Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m. NBC responded that it was working with affiliates to improve "The Jay Leno Show" and that executives "remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC." Mr. O'Brien replaced Mr. Leno on "The Tonight Show" in mid-2009. The Times further reported that NBC could move Mr. O'Brien to a slot at 12:05 a.m., bumping his replacement, Jimmy Fallon.

Since September, the 10 p.m. program has been defended as a bid to keep programming costs down -- avoiding putting millions into expensive scripted fare -- at a time when some broadcast networks are seeing ratings erode and viewers flock to digital media alternatives.

Despite the emphasis on financial acumen, the move was widely derided. Mr. O'Brien has regularly been edged out in the ratings by CBS's David Letterman, whom Mr. Leno had previously regularly beaten. What's more, several NBC affiliates have seen ratings decline for their late-news programs, which rely on Mr. Leno to feed audiences.

Slumping ad prices
By most traditional measures, the "Leno" program has disappointed. According to a recent research note from Wachovia analyst John Janedis, NBC has "lost about 35% of its viewers in the 10 p.m. time slot year over year given the switch to Jay Leno." Indeed, NBC's weekday prime-time ad prices in the 10 p.m. slot have slumped across the week. "Leno" commands an average of $53,640 for a 30-second ad on Monday nights, for example, according to an Ad Age survey of prices for 30-second commercials on various broadcast-network shows; "My Own Worst Enemy," a scripted adventure drama starring Christian Slater that ran in the time slot last season and was quickly canceled, commanded an average of $98,909.

Some reports suggested Mr. Leno could return to 11:30 p.m. quickly after the network's coming broadcast of the Olympics.

One NBC station reached by Ad Age said it was waiting for official word from the network and did not know what would happen to the 10 p.m. slot if Mr. Leno's show is indeed moved.

The thought to dismantle the "Leno" show after months of hype and promotion comes after large cable provider Comcast Corp. has agreed to take a majority stake in NBC Universal, pending regulatory approval. General Electric, the current majority investor, would become a minority shareholder.

For months, NBC Universal has talked about the necessity of changing how a broadcast network operates, particularly as audiences fragment around dozens of new viewing occasions engendered by technology. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker has even said in past appearances that NBC might fare better as a cable outlet like its sister network USA.

Reinvesting in programming
But Comcast may have a different view. "The network, the broadcast station, and then TV production -- when you look at those three as kind of an ecosystem, it's a good business," said Steven Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer and the executive who will oversee NBC Universal once Comcast acquires it, during an investor conference in December. "It clearly is not a business that is without its challenges, but it's a good business."

A Comcast spokesperson could not be reached for immediate comment.

More recently, NBC executives have spoken openly about their efforts to reinvest in programming, with more than a dozen pilots being prepared for next fall. That heavy emphasis on show development had prompted speculation that "Leno" would be canceled after a year on the air.

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Contributing: Andrew Hampp

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