Jay Leno to Move Time Slot as Conan O'Brien Takes One on Chin

Jay Leno will be in NBC's 10 p.m. slot five nights a week, sources say.
Jay Leno will be in NBC's 10 p.m. slot five nights a week, sources say. (By Paul Drinkwater -- Nbc)
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By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NBC is turning over its 10 p.m. hour to Jay Leno, Monday through Friday, to host a talk/variety show, sources report.

NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker hinted that something like this was up early Monday, in a speech he delivered at a media conference in Manhattan. In that speech, Zucker pondered publicly whether NBC would continue to program three hours of prime time each night, and/or seven nights of prime time a week, as the network looked for ways to cut costs.

Word of signing Leno to a prime-time talk show -- believed to be a broadcast network first -- started leaking out soon thereafter. NBC did not return a call for comment.

Stripping Leno's show -- "stripping" is industry lingo for a show that runs in the same time slot every night across the week, and is usually applied to syndicated shows such as "Oprah" and "Access Hollywood" -- would greatly reduce NBC's prime-time programming costs. One industry executive estimated that by not having to develop five one-hour dramas for its 10 p.m. weekday timeslots, NBC could save somewhere in the vicinity of $150 million to $200 million annually, depending on what it's going to pay Leno.

NBC had been looking for a way to keep Leno -- still the late-night ratings leader -- on the ranch when it turns over "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien on June 1. Five years ago, NBC brokered a contract with Conan, promising him "Tonight" in '09, to keep him from jumping to another network.

NBC's new Leno plans would seem to allow the network to uphold the letter of Conan's contract with NBC, but as word of the Leno development spread, many TV industry execs wondered whether it didn't spit on the spirit. Many bet Conan must be madder than a wet hen.

Why? Well, for instance, let's say you're a studio marketing exec trying to decide whether to book Really Hot New Movie Starlet X on Leno's NBC show, or Conan's NBC show. You are going to go with Leno pretty much every time, because the number of Homes Using Television at 10 p.m. is very much higher than at 11:30 p.m.

"Conan is not going to be the go-to place for talent [on NBC's schedule]," one competitor said gleefully. On the other hand, it does prevent Conan from having to compete against Leno at another network.

According to sources, Leno's show would be shot from his current "Tonight" show studio in Burbank. But NBC has built Conan a new "Tonight" show studio in Los Angeles, which would mean both of NBC's talk shows would be Los Angeles-based. This, as one TV industry executive contacted yesterday suggested, would be "hinky," and would give CBS's David Letterman carte blanche in New York. Unless NBC announces today that Conan will remain in New York after all, in light of the new development.

"You don't make this move unless you have a whole lot of holes to fill," one industry exec said of the Leno transplant to prime time. "If you're a network humming along, you're not going to give up five hours a week. This is an indictment of the complete collapse of [NBC's prime time] over the last four or five years."

Having Leno running at 10 means NBC will have more original programming than it currently has in the time slot. But it also means NBC's 10 p.m. weekday reruns are going to be pretty ugly, ratings-wise.

We're guessing the folks at Worldwide Pants were doing the happy dance yesterday. If you're David Letterman, your biggest foe is Leno, not Conan. Conan will not draw as broad an audience as does Leno.

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