Official: NBC sends Jay Leno back to late night after lackluster ratings
NBC cancelled Jay Leno’s prime-time program Sunday and moved him back to its late-night schedule, ending days of speculation about what the network would do with two failing talk shows.
NBC chairman Jeff Gaspin told reporters in Los Angeles that “The Jay Leno Show” will go off the air next month and its host will move back to his old 11:35 p.m. time slot.
The plan, which is not yet a done deal, would see “The Tonight Show” with host Conan O’Brien move to 12:05 a.m. Gaspin said “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” would also move back a half hour.
Gaspin would not say when the new schedule would begin.
He would only say that deals with the hosts, who have had the weekend to mull over the new schedule, are still being worked out. Gaspin said he hopes to have the late-night schedule finalized by the beginning of the Vancouver Olympics.
Leno left the “Tonight Show” last spring to make way for O’Brien, who NBC hoped would bring younger viewers to one of its flagship shows.
The network also gave Leno a new vehicle, “The Jay Leno Show,” an hour-long talk show that airs five nights a week at 10 p.m.
But ratings for the “Tonight Show” have sagged with O’Brien at the helm, and Leno’s new show has been eviscerated by critics and ignored by viewers. And Leno’s ratings at 10 p.m. have been so dismal that a number of NBC affiliate stations have complained of weaker lead-in audiences for their local late newscasts.
According to Gaspin, Leno’s show performed well enough to satisfy network brass, but it did not meet the needs of the NBC’s affiliates.
A number of affiliates complained of losing advertising revenue due to the drop in ratings, and threatened to go public with their complaints. Some even vowed to take Leno’s show off the air.
“The drumbeat started getting louder,” Gaspin said.
Between stand-up performances at Richmond, B.C.’s River Rock Show Theatre Saturday night, Leno told The Globe and Mail he believed he would reclaim his old time slot.
“I think so,” he said when asked by a reporter about a potential move. “It’s all screwed up.”
Last Thursday, several online media outlets reported that NBC would put “The Jay Leno Show” on hiatus Feb. 1 and he would return to late-night television after the Olympics.
After those reports surfaced, NBC released a statement Thursday professing its commitment “to keeping Conan O’Brien on NBC.”
Reports on Friday had hinted at NBC’s proposed new schedule.
But Hollywood website TMZ also reported that O’Brien could walk away from what is believed to be a multi-year contract worth as much as $20 million per year and the network would be bound to pay him.
There was also speculation O’Brien would jump to another network, most likely FOX or ABC.
O’Brien has averaged 2.5 million viewers per night in the U.S., compared to about 4.2 million for David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS. O’Brien and Letterman are also tied for ratings among viewers aged 18 to 49.
Leno, meanwhile, has averaged 5.8 million viewers per night. That’s in stark contrast to “The Mentalist,” the fall season’s top-rated 10 p.m. network drama, which brings in 17.5 million viewers for CBS.
NBC is lagging in fourth place in the ratings behind CBS, Fox and ABC, and had hoped to boost its fortunes with Leno’s show while saving money on a cheaper-to-produce talk show.
But reports say the network has a number of pilots in the can for potential new series to fill some of the now-open 10 p.m. time slots.
Gaspin would not comment Sunday on which programs will fill out its prime-time lineup.