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Will Jay Leno get his 'Tonight' groove back?

THE SHOW "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 11:35 on NBC/4

WHAT'S NEW? NBC introduces the sixth host in the franchise's long history. He was also the fourth. By all accounts the new edition will mirror the original. But band leader Kevin Eubanks is going, while the show originates from NBC Studios in Burbank (not Universal City, where Conan O'Brien's "Tonight" was taped). Guests Monday night: Jamie Foxx, Lindsey Vonn; Tuesday Sarah Palin, Shaun White, Adam Lambert.

PHOTOS: Jay Leno with famous guests

WHAT'S THE HISTORY? You know the recent. NBC affiliates squawked because "The Jay Leno Show" was killing their late local news, while O'Brien's "Tonight" was spurned by the masses. But the disaster reaches back to 2004 when NBC forced Leno to accept its O'Brien succession plan. At the time, Leno almost insisted it was all his idea ("The timing was right to plan for my successor") even though no one believed him. He admitted recently to Oprah Winfrey that he was devastated. O'Brien fans believe Leno took the 10 p.m. show to position himself for a return to 11:35.

IS LENO'S "TONIGHT" DAMAGED GOODS? Indications suggest that the damage is insignificant. A Harris poll conducted while Leno was still at 10 p.m. found he was the third most popular TV personality (after Winfrey and Glenn Beck, although he had slipped from first). And a Jan. 13 Rasmussen poll noted: "Among frequent late-night watchers, 41 percent say they're more likely to watch Leno [at 11:35]; 20 percent are less likely . . . 39 percent say the move makes no difference."

MY SAY Of course Leno was damaged, and, of course, so was "Tonight." How could they not have been? But most fans will correctly blame NBC suits, and Leno will go out there and pound away. In a few months all may well be forgotten. Here's the much larger issue, which Leno hinted at back in '04: "Only one person has done this in his 60s, and that was Johnny Carson, and I think it's safe to say I'm no Johnny Carson." Leno turns 60 on April 28. You can bet he's changed his mind, but . . . who will replace Jay someday?

PHOTOS: Jay Leno with famous guests


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