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Late-night shift sinking,NBC wants Leno back in old slot

Faced with the failure of the biggest recent gamble in television,NBC is shuffling its late-night deck one more time....

Written by New York Times | New York |
January 9, 2010 2:46:53 am

Faced with the failure of the biggest recent gamble in television,NBC is shuffling its late-night deck one more time.

The network has a plan in the works to restore Jay Leno to his old spot at 11.35 pm each weeknight for a half-hour,while pushing the man who replaced him,Conan O’Brien,to a starting time of 12.05 am. O’Brien would then have a full hour.

NBC executives held extensive discussions with both Leno and O’Brien Thursday about the future of the network’s late-night lineup. One senior executive,who declined to be identified because of the continuing talks,said the moves were still being thrashed out by the representatives of each of the stars,but that an essential agreement was in place. There is no timetable yet to issue a final announcement of the plan because contractual details remain to be worked out.

The change,if completed,would represent a retreat from the network’s strategy of replacing Leno,who drove The Tonight Show to the top of the late-night ratings,with the younger,hipper O’Brien,then trying to save money in prime time by replacing expensive dramas with Leno’s show at 10 pm.

The moves are being driven by pressure from NBC’s affiliated stations,which have seen ratings for their late-night local newscasts plummet since September. That was when NBC began The Jay Leno Show,a prime-time version of Leno’s old late-night show. O’Brien succeeded Leno as host of The Tonight Show in June.

Though Leno’s prime-time show has not fallen below the ratings guarantees that NBC gave to advertisers,it has averaged only about five million viewers a night. The NBC station managers have blamed consistently low lead-in audiences for much of the falloff in their news ratings — and local stations rely on news programs for the majority of their revenue. The affiliates meet with NBC on January 21.

O’Brien’s ratings have suffered on The Tonight Show. He has trailed the Late Night with David Letterman on CBS by about two million viewers a night. The revised lineup would go into effect after NBC concludes its coverage of the Winter Olympics on February 28.

Leno addressed the developments on Thursday’s show. “I don’t think there is any truth to the rumours,” he said. “See,it’s always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you’re in first place.”

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