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Will Leno take ‘Tonight’ back from Conan?

Although NBC shot down rumors Thursday that it would be canceling the low-rated “The Jay Leno Show,” unconfirmed reports indicate a major lineup shuffle may be in the works.
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Although NBC shot down rumors Thursday that it would be canceling the low-rated “The Jay Leno Show,” unconfirmed reports indicate a lineup shuffle may be in the works that would keep Leno at the network, but not necessarily in the 10 p.m. time slot he’s held since September.

According to the speculation, “The Jay Leno Show” would go on hiatus beginning Feb. 1 and after the Winter Olympics the comic would return at the helm of “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m., replacing Conan O’Brien.

The New York Times also reported that in addition to restoring Leno to his former spot, the network would push O’Brien to a 12:05 a.m. starting time for an hour-long program. “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” would then start at 1:05 a.m.

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“NBC executives said a decision would definitely not be announced Thursday but did not deny a report posted by the Web site TMZ that NBC was considering making the switch and replacing Mr. O’Brien at ‘Tonight’ with Mr. Leno,” Bill Carter of The New York Times wrote on Thursday.

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In response to the rumors, the network released a statement Thursday afternoon, saying, “We have the best comedy team in the business. We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers on television.”

Earlier in the day, NBC also issued a statement showing support for Leno.

“Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay’s show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network,” the statement read. “It has, however, presented some issues for our affiliates. Both Jay and the show are committed to working closely with them to find ways to improve the performance.”

FTVLive.com published a story early Thursday morning suggesting NBC would pull the plug on the show, potentially as soon as after the Winter Olympics, claiming that low ratings were to blame.

‘Critical time to promote’
The rumors surrounding Leno’s fate left industry analyst Shari Anne Brill mystified.

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“For me, the big question is what is going to happen at 10 p.m. going forward,” Brill said, “because that’s a critical time period to promote the late local news, and it was the affiliates’ dissatisfaction with their lower audience numbers that was the catalyst for speculation on this purported move (for Leno) into late-night.”

“The unsolved mystery is what happens at 10 p.m.,” said Brill.

Scheduling scenarios
With shake-up seemingly in the works, what’s holding up an official announcement? A plan that meets the approval of both Leno and O’Brien, according to TheWrap.com.

Both hosts have contracts which guarantee them millions if NBC changes the current situation.

NBC has also been preparing backup plans for months now, TheWrap.com reported insiders as saying. The network has been researching various scheduling scenarios — Leno at 8, Leno at 11, Conan at 12:05 a.m. — to see how viewers might react.

Such base-covering is unsurprising given that networks are constantly researching and testing just about everything, from show concepts to time-slot switches. Still, it's an indication that the network had decided that change could very much be in the works — and it wanted to be prepared.

One looming question is whether the shift of Leno out of his current 10 p.m. Monday through Friday timeslot will set off a reaction that leads to O’Brien walking.

Fox has long been rumored as a possible home for O’Brien in case of emergency, TheWrap.com reported. ABC has been interested in Leno if he were available; it's not clear it would be willing to dump "Nightline" and/or push "Jimmy Kimmel Live" back for O’Brien.

What sparked Thursday’s flurry of Web reports was unclear, but coincided with reports this week that NBC has as many as 18 pilots for prospective new series — presumably more than would be needed to replenish a prime-time schedule for a network that expected to continue filling five hours weekly with Leno’s show.

The speculation may also be a run-up to the winter TV Critics Press Tour, which begins this weekend in Los Angeles. At this annual conclave, network programming initiatives are unveiled for media reporters. In turn, reporters have a forum to grill network brass on programming questions. NBC’s session is scheduled for Sunday.

Msnbc.com’s Courtney Hazlett, The Associated Press, TheWrap.com and The New York Times contributed to this report.