So, Jay, back to 11:30? And Conan to midnight?
NBC - on the eve of a meeting with the press and affiliates - is expected to answer "yes" by Friday morning.
A story on TMZ Thursday reported that "The Jay Leno Show" would be shelved Feb. 1, just before the Winter Olympics, and that Leno would return to a half-hour version of "Tonight." Conan O'Brien would host an hour show at midnight, according to reports.
The network did not deny the story, but instead released a statement Thursday night saying, "We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."
To translate, that means Leno's return to "Tonight" is going to happen, and most likely after the Winter Olympics.
A major change was, in fact, expected: The 10 p.m. show that was once cast as the future of NBC's prime time has simply not worked. NBC affiliates - which have seen their 11 p.m. news broadcasts lose viewers because the so-called "lead-in" at 10 is so anemic - have griped bitterly. Worse, viewers have been faithless. "The Jay Leno Show" launched in September with 18 million of them the first night and the number dwindled relentlessly since, to below 4 million.
Also, NBC recently ordered nearly a dozen new dramas. Some of those would logically be expected to air weeknights at 10 p.m. if they get picked up. Some, doubtless, will.
NBC was caught badly flat-footed Thursday. First, it denied a morning Web report that stated Leno's show was to be canceled.
While affirming that affiliates were getting hammered (or, per the news statement, the Leno show "presented some issues"), it said "Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay's show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network." Then, the TMZ story broke.
In an interview last fall with Broadcasting & Cable magazine - the only one Leno had done with the press in months and which was considered an olive branch to NBC stations at the time - he was asked whether he'd just quit if the ratings kept sailing south: "I know this sounds really weird, but that's how you win. I look at what makes other competitors weak: alcohol, drugs, sex, instability emotionally. And I go, " 'OK, let me make myself strong by being the long-distance guy.' "
But he was also asked if he'd return to "Tonight" if he got the call: "If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to."