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MARIO ANZUONI  /  Reuters file
Two months into a two-year deal, Jay Leno's 10 p.m. talk show already could be in trouble.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/9/2009 6:49:25 PM ET 2009-11-09T23:49:25

As the title of his 1996 autobiography suggests, Jay Leno went straight into his NBC prime-time rescue mission “Leading With My Chin.” Last week, he walked straight into a haymaker.

The 59-year-old comedian saw an opportunity to boost “The Jay Leno Show” heading into the November sweeps, sitting for an interview with trade magazine Broadcast & Cable. What happened next led to the type of damaging headline he often mocks on his show: “Leno says he’d return to ‘Tonight.’”

That’s how it read in a wide-ranging Q&A session. Leno sounds his typical, scrappy self, insisting he has no intention of backing down from this fight and that he’s in for the long haul. But word back from several quarters is that Leno felt badgered into the “Tonight Show” statement and has, for now, stopped talking to the press.

All this comes as “The Jay Leno Show” sits — two months into a two-year deal — mired in less-than-stellar ratings.

So low, in fact, the series routinely earns a “loser” tag on Marc Berman’s widely-read Mediaweek industry column, “The Programming Insider.”

“It’s an enormous flop,” said Berman, who doesn’t see the show’s ratings improving any time soon. “NBC is not popping open bottles of champagne celebrating Jay Leno.”

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

Most observers expected the series to start fast and it did, drawing more than 18.5 million for that awkward Kanye West confessional on opening night. Launching seven days in advance of the new fall season on rival networks, the series did well all week.

Jay Leno's competition

Then back came CBS’s 10 p.m. power alley, “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: NY,” “The Mentalist,” and promising newcomer “The Good Wife.” Down went Leno.

The comedian did his best to downplay expectations last August before critics in Los Angeles. We won’t beat “CSI Miami” and “The Mentalist” head-to-head against fresh episodes, he stated, but watch for us on those weeks the other guys are in reruns.

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The first of those weeks came and went at the end of October, and “The Jay Leno Show” did not see any lift in the ratings. The series drew between 4.4 million and a little more than 6 million in overnight estimates between Oct. 26-30. His rating among the all-important 18-49-year old demo hovered between 1.2 and 1.8, with his best score occurring Tuesday nights out of “The Biggest Loser.”

Video: Matt gives Leno’s racetrack a whirl If anything, the network that saw a rise in ratings that week was ABC, with shows like “Castle” and “Private Practice” soaring to season highs.

Leno and NBC argue that his cost-efficient show is priced to turn a profit even at a 1.5 rating among 18-49-year-olds, but the numbers have dipped below even that low threshold.

A late October report in Advertising Age suggested NBC has only been able to charge on average less than $60,000 per 30-second spot on “Leno,” half what CBS has been getting for rookie drama “The Good Wife” and a quarter what ABC demands for “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Then there is what Bill Carter and others have been calling “the Leno effect.” The New York Times television columnist and author of “The Late Shift” (the book on the Leno/David Letterman toss up over “Tonight”) said Leno’s low 10 p.m. score has hurt NBC’s entire schedule.

“They had to move ‘Law & Order: SVU’ to 9 o’clock to accommodate ‘Leno,’” Carter said. “That was a time period-winning show for many years and it’s finishing last at 9 o’clock. Now they’ve got a fourth-place show.”

Carter also notes that Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight” is down roughly two million viewers a night year-to-year. Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” show, which follows, has shed about a third of what O’Brien used to draw at that hour. Carter sees nothing but damage to “this gigantic, historic NBC tradition, dominant in late-night for half a century.”

Then there are those 200-plus NBC affiliate newscasts, the ones Leno has been asking viewers to stay tuned for every night. Dips of between 20-30 percent have been reported in local newscast ratings in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

“We’re off to a rough start,” said Jim Toellner, general manager of NBC’s Gannett-owned Buffalo, N.Y., affiliate WGRZ-TV. “Our newscast and our lead-in to our newscast are down significantly from where it was a year ago.”

Toellner, however, said most affiliate managers he’s heard from are trying to hold to a long-term view. That recent week against repeats really wasn’t a fair snapshot, he said, because it occurred opposite baseball playoffs and World Series coverage on Fox, not normally a factor at 10 p.m. “That really impacted us,” Toellner said. “The New York Yankees are kind of like Buffalo’s third professional team.”

Still, there have been rumblings — some ignited by Leno’s own musings to Broadcast & Cable — that NBC might rethink its 10 p.m. experiment. The rumors are rampant: Leno moves back to “Tonight,” displacing O’Brien to who-knows-where. The affiliates move their newscasts back to 10 p.m., bumping Leno to 11 and O’Brien’s “Tonight” to 12. Leno only airs three times a week, with NBC moving dramas back into at least two 10 p.m. slots.

Another large wild card in all these musings is the possible sale of NBC Universal, with cable giant Comcast among the suitors.

Slideshow: Night people

Ownership issues aside, Berman, for one, thinks NBC will stick with Leno at 10 p.m. for the rest of this season. “If you take away one or two nights, that’s going to send a signal to viewers that it’s over,” he said.

Carter also thinks Leno isn’t going anywhere. “One of the things that is clearly in his favor is that this was a plan that was formulated at the highest levels at NBC,” Carter said. “To the extent that there is any second guessing it would have to be at less than the highest level.”

Besides, Carter believes writing Leno off is always a mistake. “That’s done too often and he’s proven people wrong a lot,” he said.

Aaron Barnhart, the TV columnist for the Kansas City Star, agrees. “If they move him back, if they move him forward, it’s suicide,” said Barnhart. “Any executive who wants to take him out, he’s got to face the music — there’s nothing to put on in his place.”

A long time late-night observer, Barnhart also feels that Leno is closest to Johnny Carson when it comes to understanding where the real power lies in television. “As long as he controls the desk, as long as he remains NBC’s biggest star, he’s in the driver’s seat,” Barnhart said.

That being said, Bill Carter believes Leno’s task is beyond Herculean. Where he used to work two comedy acts a night on “Tonight,” he now has four or five, including those electric car stunts and “Ten at 10” segments.

“Think of the classic comedy hours of the past — Jackie Gleason or Carol Burnett — and they were on once a week,” Carter said. “When is Jay supposed to rehearse?”

Bill Brioux’s “Night Watch: 50 Years of Late Night Television,” is due out in 2010 from Praeger Press.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Jay Leno, ‘Tonight’ and beyond

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  1. Happy to be back

    Jay Leno basks in the glow as he returns to "The Tonight Show" at the NBC studio in Burbank, Calif., on Monday, March 1. "It's good to be home,” he said as he began his monologue. "I’m Jay Leno, your host. At least, for a while." (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden girl

    Olympic gold medal winning skier Lindsey Vonn chats with Leno during his first night back on "The Tonight Show" on Monday, March 1. "Did you see her?" Leno marveled. "When it comes to going downhill, nobody is faster. OK, except NBC." (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 10 spot

    Leno tapes the inaugural episode of NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" in Burbank, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2009.The host broke new ground on broadcast television with the launch of the show at 10 p.m. -- a timeslot normally reserved for scripted programming. The show, however, failed to attract viewers and NBC pulled the plug on its "Leno experiment" on Jan. 11, 2010. (Justin Lubin / NBC via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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