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NBC to cancel Jay Leno's prime-time show; aims to reshuffle Leno, Conan O'Brien

"The Jay Leno Show," taped in Burbank, Calif., has been a ratings disappointment. Leno may be moving from an hour at 10 p.m. to a half-hour slot at 11:35.
"The Jay Leno Show," taped in Burbank, Calif., has been a ratings disappointment. Leno may be moving from an hour at 10 p.m. to a half-hour slot at 11:35. (Mario Anzuoni/reutersmark J. Terrill/associated Press)

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By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, January 11, 2010

PASADENA, CALIF. -- NBC finally confirmed it is going to scuttle Jay Leno's 10 o'clock comedy program and shift the host back to late night after NBC TV stations threatened to drop the prime-time weeknight series, the network's entertainment chief said Sunday.

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"The Jay Leno Show" will be pulled from prime time when the network starts its coverage of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., on Feb. 12.

Leno has been offered his old 11:35 p.m. start time, Monday through Friday. But he will not get "The Tonight Show" name; that mantle will remain with the current host, Conan O'Brien, though the iconic NBC late-night show will start at 12:05 a.m. "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" would then start at 1:05.

"As much as I'd like to tell you we have a done deal, we know that is not true. The talks are still ongoing," NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin told reporters attending the winter television press tour here.

"The Jay Leno Show" was a low-cost alternative to expensive scripted programming (Leno boasted he could make a week's worth of his program for the cost of one episode of a scripted 10 p.m. drama). But NBC's closely watched experiment in rewriting the economic rules of broadcast TV failed because Leno's prime-time audience was on a late-night scale, and the threshold for ratings success in prime time is much higher than in late night.

Similarly, as "Tonight Show" host, O'Brien has been averaging ratings that were a slight improvement on his "Late Night" ratings, but not good enough for a more lucrative franchise.

NBC's supposed innovation resulted in "transplanting 'The Tonight Show' numbers to 10, and 'Late Night' numbers to 'The Tonight Show,' " noted a competitor. Despite the ratings disappointments, the network was making money on Leno's show, Gaspin insisted.

But Leno in prime time delivered far fewer viewers to NBC stations' late local newscasts, and the slump was costing the stations millions in lost advertising revenue. Some of the most seriously impacted stations told NBC in December they would revolt if a change was not made.

Local stations protested

"They started a drumbeat that started getting louder and louder," Gaspin said during a Q&A session. "Toward the middle of December they made it clear they would start to be more vocal and would start to talk about the possibility of preemption, and we realized this is just not going to go well if we kept things in place."

There was never any discussion about gutting Leno's show and trying a new format at 10. "I don't think there was that much more they could do," Gaspin said of Leno's producers. "They were doing the show that Jay wanted to do."

Gaspin would not confirm which hosts had and had not accepted the change of assignment, saying all three had been given the weekend to mull things over, and describing the men as "professional" and "gracious" in meetings with network executives last week. "My goal right now is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy as part of our late-night lineup," Gaspin said.

But Gaspin did say he fully expects all negotiations to be wrapped up by the time NBC's coverage of the Olympic Games start. "I can't imagine we won't have everything in place before that," he said.


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