NBC's Jay Leno May Get His Old Time Slot Back

There are rumblings that NBC's experiment with Jay Leno in prime time may be nearing an end. It appears Leno may get a 30-minute show at 11:35 p.m. EST, pushing back Conan O'Brien's Tonight and Jimmy Fallon's Late Night. Madeleine Brand gets the latest from Kim Masters, host of member station KCRW's show, "The Business."

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

NBC'S experiment with Jay Leno in primetime may not last much longer.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Jay Leno Show")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Jay Leno Show"): As you may have heard, there's a rumor floating around. We may have - we were canceled. I heard it coming in this morning...

Mr. KEVIN EUBANKS (Musician): I heard it, too.

Mr. LENO: ...on the radio. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So far, nobody's said anything to me. But, Kev, you know, if we did get canceled, it would give us time to maybe do some traveling.

Mr. EUBANKS: That would be wonderful, man.

Mr. LENO: Yeah. In fact, I understand FOX is beautiful this time of year.

Mr. EUBANKS: It really is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Jay Leno last night, joking around about possibly being moved back to his old slot. And Kim Masters is here. Now, she's been following this story from L.A. So what is the latest? What's happening?

KIM MASTERS: Well, what seems clear is that Jay Leno's 10:00 primetime experiment is ending, probably at the end of this month. NBC seems to be trying to scramble to somehow return him to late night, keep him and Conan O'Brien both in the NBC fold and return 10 p.m. to scripted programming.

BRAND: So they're finally admitting that this was mistake?

MASTERS: Well, it seems to be a tacit admission. NBC spent basically all of Thursday reacting to Internet rumors and speculation. It was not exactly a study in great public relations strategy. They initially issued a statement saying that they were going to support Leno, but their affiliates were having some problems with the ratings.

And then they issued a statement saying they really like Conan. And meanwhile, the Internet just went crazy with all of this speculation. So it was just a day of sort of stunning chaos in the television world.

BRAND: Well, the original idea was to save some money, I understand, because primetime shows, scripted shows, they were costing NBC a lot of money.

MASTERS: Yes. And NBC wasn't doing well with them. And so they were going to do "Leno" and it was going to be cheap, and they didn't need to do a big number. But what happened is that not only did they not do a big number with "Leno" at 10, but they started to really crush their affiliated stations.

And for them, the 11:00 news is extremely important advertising revenue, and Leno was providing a really weak lead-in. So the ratings for the newscast on their affiliated stations fell. And Conan O'Brien, they had been number one at 11:35 with the "Tonight Show," he fell from that perch.

So basically, they were kind of cratering their schedule up and down the line. And it just, you know, you can be penny wise and pound foolish. And think this would be a case study in that.

BRAND: And what does it mean for the players involved, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien?

MASTERS: Well, that's one of the mysteries of the day. I mean, you know, it seemed that NBC clearly put out signals yesterday that they were trying to keep them both. And there's no indication where Leno and O'Brien and any of these guys stand on this, whether they have to accept this or force a big payoff under the terms of their contract.

Obviously, Leno's monologue on Thursday was pretty hostile, with lots of negative jokes about NBC and how he doesn't trust the network and how FOX seems very attractive. So this is a story that's going to play out.

BRAND: So it could be that NBC loses both of these guys.

MASTERS: Who knows? I mean, one thing that NBC also has to do is rebuild its primetime schedule. And they've left themselves with a big crater at 10:00 at night, five nights a week. And that's very expensive and labor intensive to try to rebuild that with some hit programming.

BRAND: Kim Masters hosts member station KCRW's show, THE BUSINESS. It's a show about the TV and film industry.

Thanks, Kim.

MASTERS: Thank you, Madeleine.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Jay Leno Show")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. LENO: Welcome to the show. Thank you. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of cheering)

BRAND: This is NPR News.

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