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Leno may return to late-night TV

NBC in talks with ex-‘Tonight’ host

HOLLYWOOD – Jay Leno, the former king of late night television, who was pushed out as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” last year and then struggled in his new prime time slot, is in talks to return to 11:30 p.m. Conan O’Brien, who succeeded Leno, will either go back to following Leno or leave the network.

The re-shuffle could happen as soon as March, after NBC finishes airing the 2010 Winter Olympics, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity. While Leno is on board with the plan, O’Brien is not yet signed on and that needs to be resolved before the network can make it official, said sources.

NBC’s flip-flop is being driven in large part by complaints from NBC affiliates from across the country who have lost viewers and advertising revenue because of Leno’s performance in the 10 p.m. time slot. The imminent move also highlights the fourth-place network’s difficulty in reviving its anemic prime time lineup at a time when a majority stake of the company is in the process of being sold from parent General Electric Co. to cable giant Comcast Corp.

The leading scenario is for Leno’s late-night show to shrink to a half-hour and then for it to be followed by O’Brien at 12:05 a.m. Even though Leno’s workload will be cut in half, his estimated $30 million annual salary will not be, sources close to the comedian said.

Restoring Leno to his former late-night slot represents a tacit admission by NBC that its daring move to replace him with O’Brien and shake up its 10 p.m. time slot was a huge mistake. When NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker made the decision in September 2004, it was done as a defensive measure to keep O’Brien from defecting to a rival network. Also, while Leno was No. 1 then, NBC was betting that the younger O’Brien would be ready to take over the “Tonight Show” desk and keep the program fresh for the next generation.

But as Leno’s late-night exit date drew closer and he considered competing against O’Brien, NBC gave Leno his own show at 10 p.m. It was a plan that NBC had hoped would allow it to have its cake and eat it too.

Instead, both moves proved to be big disappointments. Leno’s show has not performed well at 10 p.m. and O’Brien has not been able to fill Leno’s shoes at 11:30.

Since premiering in prime time in September, Leno’s show has averaged 5.34 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s a 29 percent drop from the same period last season when it was running dramatic fare such as “Law & Order” and “ER.”

Leno’s woes in prime time have been well-publicized, but O’Brien’s transition from 12:30 to 11:30 has been equally traumatic. He trails CBS’s David Letterman by about 2 million viewers and the two shows are tied in the coveted adults 18-49 demographic. Leno routinely beat Letterman in both those categories.