LOS ANGELES — NBC has instantly created TV’s hottest drama, a storyline with ego, pride and millions of dollars at stake: how to fix the problem it created by moving Jay Leno to prime time.
Faced with poor ratings for both “The Jay Leno Show” and Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show,” the network is said to be considering returning Leno to his 11:35 p.m. slot and moving “Tonight” to midnight — a change that NBC’s hard-hit affiliate stations would eagerly welcome.
Many stations have complained that the ratings for their 11 p.m. newscasts have plummeted because Leno’s 10 p.m. show is such a weak lead-in.
“I think Jay Leno’s a great performer. He’s just at the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. There is something wrong with not correcting them,” said Bob Prather, president and chief operating officer at Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc., whose station group includes 10 NBC affiliates.
Lisa Howfield, general manager of NBC affiliate KVBC in Las Vegas, said: “I’m excited to have Jay land back in late night. It sounds like a great lineup.”
Whether Leno accepts a truncated, half-hour version of his prime-time comedy and talk show remains to be seen, as does O’Brien’s response to getting less than a year to prove himself as host of “Tonight.”
O’Brien is averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers, compared with 4.2 for Letterman’s “Late Show,” according to Nielsen figures. And the younger audience that O’Brien was expected to woo has been largely unimpressed, with O’Brien and Letterman’s shows tying among advertiser-favored viewers ages 18 to 49.
NBC’s contract with O’Brien reportedly allows the network to move “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m. but no later, at the risk of substantial financial penalties. With a two-year contract said to be valued at about $28 million per year, O’Brien would have to think hard about walking away.
Any change would probably not take effect until March, after the Winter Olympics on NBC.
Network executives have been talking with Leno, O’Brien and their representatives to work out a solution. Meanwhile, online reports about the possible changes prompted the network to issue statements of support for both men, while declining to commit itself to keeping Leno’s show on in prime time.
Leno’s show has averaged 5.8 million nightly viewers since its fall debut, about the same number who watched his final “Tonight” season. By comparison, the season’s top-rated 10 p.m. network drama, CBS’ “The Mentalist,” has an average audience of 17.5 million.
While Leno gleefully poked fun at NBC’s woes in his Thursday monologue, even playfully toying with the idea of bolting to the Fox network, O’Brien refrained from commenting on “Tonight” and hasn’t spoken about it publicly otherwise.
The drama verges on a rerun, recalling the messy battle for “Tonight” that Leno and David Letterman waged in the early 1990s when Johnny Carson decided to surrender the throne. Leno claimed it in 1992, with Letterman becoming his competitor at CBS.
In November, Leno told Broadcasting &Cable magazine he would have preferred to stay with “Tonight” and would take the job again if NBC offered it.
After picking O’Brien to succeed Leno as the “Tonight” host, NBC took the revolutionary step of moving Leno to prime time to keep him from jumping to a rival network and to hold down production costs, since a talk show is cheaper to make than a series.
But affiliate displeasure grew quickly when Leno’s show proved a poor lead-in for the local late newscasts that generate significant station revenue — and which depend on 10 p.m. shows to funnel viewers to them.