Curtains for prime time's 'Jay Leno Show'?

NBC's experiment with a prime time comedy hour appears to be a flop, with reports that the network is pushing the faltering 'Jay Leno Show' back to its old late-night slot.

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    Jay Leno speaks during the panel for "The Jay Leno Show" at the NBC Universal Television Critics Association summer press tour on August 5, 2009.
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The future of "The Jay Leno Show" is looking shaky, with reports that NBC is planning to move Jay Leno back to his old “Tonight Show” time slot of 11:35 p.m.

The peacock network won’t deny or confirm these plans, but most knowledgeable observers consider the experiment of substituting dramas with Mr. Leno’s comedy at the prime-time 10 p.m. slot to be well and truly over.

The show’s debut last September garnered nearly 12 million viewers, but lost nearly half that audience almost immediately, then slid steadily downward to last week’s roughly 5 million viewers, according to Mediaweek's Marc Berman.

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“If this were a cable network where ratings were not so critical, then perhaps there would be patience with a show while it found its footing in a new time slot,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He points out that NBC gave Leno plenty of time to build ratings when he took over the “Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson in 1992.

But this is network television in the 21st century, he says, and NBC can’t afford the combined punches of low ratings at 10 p.m. and unhappy affiliates who have bitterly complained about losing up to half their viewers for their 11 p.m. newscasts.

February is a good time to make the change back, Mr. Thompson says. The Winter Olympics will give NBC the scheduling breather it needs to make adjustments.

Current speculation, fueled by the TMZ entertainment website, suggests that NBC will use the anticipated audience boost from the Olympics coverage to re-launch Leno at 11:35 p.m., while it offers Conan O’Brien, the current “Tonight Show” host, a new slot at 12:05 a.m., with Jimmy Fallon following at 1:05 a.m None of the hosts has indicated any plans, as of yet.

NBC originally moved Leno to the 10 p.m. slot to save money (the variety show costs one-third of a drama to produce), and to keep him from jumping ship when Conan O’Brien took over the "Tonight Show."

A dying format?

All this tinkering is little more than juggling deck chairs on a sinking ship, says Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies at Fordham University, New York and author of “New New Media.”

“The late-night talk show is a dying format,” Mr. Levinson says, adding that while the talk show structure that began back in the 1950s with host Dave Garroway, has served network television well through the 20th century, it’s time is over.

“Unless these shows can suddenly become as hip or cool as Jon Stewart or [Stephen] Colbert, then that era is done,” he adds. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report both air on Comedy Central after 11 p.m.

New time without new content

Will a network suddenly faced with five consecutive nights of prime-time real estate to fill go out on a limb and try something new? History suggests otherwise, say media experts.

When CBS moved Katie Couric into the evening news anchor slot in 2006, it changed little of the show’s basic format, Mr. Levinson notes. “They got credit for putting a woman in that job, but even though she tried out a variety of story ideas, essentially it’s the same newscast [that] networks have been mounting for decades.”

Similarly, when NBC debuted The Jay Leno Show as a five-night comedy strip at 10 p.m. last fall, fans and affiliates alike hoped that the host would experiment with sharper humor and new formats. “Instead,” says Syracuse University’s Thompson, “the show may actually have gotten worse when it moved to its new time slot.”

Meanwhile, the folks over at both NBC corporate headquarters as well as “The Jay Leno Show” are keeping a low profile as the rumors fly. But that won’t last long. The network is scheduled to face a day of press conferences Sunday detailing its mid-season programming at the semi-annual Television Critics Association in Pasadena.

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