The great Jay Leno prime-time experiment has officially ended. After less than four months of comparatively low ratings and critical drubbing, "The Jay Leno Show" will leave its 10 p.m. slot on February 12, with Leno possibly staging a return to the same late-night spot he voluntarily gave up last year to his successor, Conan O'Brien.
NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin made the announcement on Sunday (January 10) at the Television Critics Association press tour, according to the Los Angeles Times. At press time, it remained unclear how the decision would pan out, since O'Brien has a five-year contract to host "The Tonight Show," but the paper said that NBC is looking for Leno to return to his old 11:35 p.m. nightly slot when the Winter Olympics conclude at the end of February.
Though comparatively low-rated, Leno's show was performing at the expected levels for the network, Gaspin said, but "it did not meet our affiliates' needs." Those affiliates had been grumbling for months that the sub-par numbers for Leno's show — which took up an unprecedented five hours a week of important prime-time programming slots — were hurting their local news divisions by not providing a strong lead-in to the 11 o'clock broadcasts, thereby costing them precious ad dollars. Some affiliates had even begun a move to push Leno's program back an hour to 11 p.m. and push local news to 10 p.m. in order to reverse the ratings trend.
"This was not going to go well if that was the case," Gaspin said about the threatened schedule move from some affiliates. NBC's audience has dropped about 30 percent since the new Leno show debuted and the negative impact on the local affiliates had forced them to insist NBC make a move, Gaspin said.
The current plan calls for NBC to try to work out deals with Leno, O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon, with a possibility that Leno will return at 11:35 p.m., followed by O'Brien at 12:05 and Fallon at 1:05 a.m. In that scenario, O'Brien would technically keep the title of host of "The Tonight Show," though a 12:05 start time is not what he signed on for when NBC offered him the coveted "Tonight Show" gig in 2004.
"As much as I'd like to tell you we have a done deal, the talks are still going on," Gaspin said, noting that Leno is OK with the decision, while O'Brien is reportedly not yet sold on being pushed back to his old slot. Gaspin said both men have been "incredibly gracious and professional" about the situation.
Leno alluded to the difficult situation on his show on Thursday night, cracking jokes about being canceled and taking potshots at NBC. O'Brien was even more harsh on Friday night, joking, "We've got a great show for you tonight. I have no idea what time it will air, but it's gonna be a great show" and "NBC has finally come up with an exciting new idea: They want me to follow Jay Leno."