'Tonight Show' host to stick with network

Jay Leno won’t be departing NBC after all.

Peacock is prepped to announce on Tuesday that the “Tonight Show” host will take over the 10 p.m. weeknight slot starting next fall – a blockbuster move that had been rumored as a possibility for months, but something NBC had believed was a real long shot until recently.

Decision to strip Leno at 10 p.m. solves one of the most pressing issue facing NBC in the coming year: How to keep ratings leader Leno at the network, and away from the competition.

Move also saves “Tonight Show” successor Conan O’Brien from having to compete against his predecessor – who was expected to land in the 11:35 slot at another network, most likely ABC. (Fox and Sony, among others, had expressed interest too.) But by keeping Leno on at 10 p.m., O’Brien may also very well wind up being overshadowed by his predecessor – particularly since Leno will air in primetime, when TV viewing is higher.

By putting Leno in the 10 p.m. slot, NBC U topper Jeff Zucker has just completely altered the primetime landscape going into next season.

With 10 p.m. now filled by Leno – not to mention Sunday Night Football consuming four hours on Sunday and repeats on Saturday – NBC may program as few as ten hours of traditional primetime fare next fall. With some of those hours likely to be reality shows, there’s not much room left for scripted fare.

That may strike fear into the hearts of agents, studios and producers, but it also might be NBC’s ticket out of the ratings dumpster. The 10 p.m. slot, which is still key for stations, which depend on network viewership as a lead-in for its local newscasts, has been mostly a disaster for NBC.

Other than “Law & Order: SVU,” Peacock has been struggling badly in the hour – one in which it once dominated, with powerhouses such as “ER.”

Now, “ER” is limping to the finish line, while one-time solid performer “Law & Order” doesn’t pull the viewers it once did. Also, one of the fall’s biggest flops, “My Own Worst Enemy,” fizzled on Mondays at 10 p.m.

Enter Jay Leno. Moving Leno to 10 p.m. had long been discussed in industry circles as perhaps NBC’s best option to keep the host in the network fold.

But Zucker had shot down that speculation earlier this fall, arguing that Leno’s heart was still with the 11:30 p.m. spot – partly because of the “Tonight Show”/Johnny Carson legacy with the spot.

Apparently he hadn’t yet broached it with Leno himself. Because, according to insiders, when Zucker finally sat down with Leno last month to map out a 10 p.m. strategy, the late night king almost immediately signed on.

The pitch was simple: Keep doing what you’re doing, but at 10 p.m. That means Leno still won’t own the new show – NBC Universal will, much like it does the “Tonight Show.”

As part of his new deal, insiders have suggested that Leno could make between $40 million to $50 million a year with a 10 p.m. slot.

Also, at least for now, Leno will continue to host the new show in the same Burbank studio (connected to NBC’s now vacant former west coast headquarters) that he currently helms “Tonight.” That’s because NBC is building a new “Tonight Show” stage for O’Brien on the Universal lot, next to NBC’s new digs.

Most importantly for Leno, he stays at the same home where he’s spent the last 17 years as host of late night TV’s biggest franchise.

NBC announced this summer that Leno would air his final “Tonight Show” on Friday, May 29, with O’Brien taking over on Monday, June 1. The host was said to be regretting his decision to leave the show, providing plenty of hints on air and in interviews earlier this year that he wasn’t pleased with having to go.

The host joked on “Tonight” about a move to ABC, and told USA Today that “I am definitely done this year – with NBC.”

NBC execs said Leno’s comment was taken out of context, but admitted that they knew Leno wasn’t happy about departing “Tonight.” The gavver continues to dominate late night ratings, but NBC was resolute in sticking by the regime change it had put forth four years ago with Leno’s blessing.

“Our goal is to work with him and come up with an alternative than telling jokes in late night at 11:30,” NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios co-chair Marc Graboff said at this summer’s TV Critics Assn. press tour. “We believe there’s room on a regular basis for him to be on our air.”

Leno showed up at that same press tour session, in disguise – which was promoted by NBC as a sign that their relationship with the host was still solid.

As for O’Brien, the incoming “Tonight” host had been told that such a move with Leno was going down, and was informed on Monday that it would be official. According to insiders, the O’Brien camp feels that it’s better to have Leno as a lead-in (with local news smack in the middle) than have him as a direct competitor.

Now, O’Brien will only have to battle David Letterman at 11:35. Also, Leno exec producer Debbie Vickers and O’Brien exec producer Jeff Ross are said to be close, and now that they’ll be physically in close proximity, may work together on guests and other production issues.

The idea of stripping a series at 10 p.m. is nothing new: NBC toyed with the idea in 1992 as a way to keep David Letterman at the network; its believed the network also considered stripping “Dateline NBC” on the network back during a period of earlier ratings woes.

The impact of moving Leno to 10 p.m. will likely be a hot topic for weeks.

“What does this mean to my show?” asked one NBC exec producer almost immediately after word of the Leno move leaked. Indeed, some shows may wind up with shorter orders than the traditional 22 episode season, as Peacock’s needs may be less.

ABC and CBS meanwhile, may cheer the news: They can position their dramas there as counterprogramming for viewers not interested in watching a gabfest at 10 p.m.

Leno at 10 p.m. may also accelerate NBC’s aging process (or, on the flip side, add a few more younger viewers to Leno’s stable). “Tonight’s” median age is currently 56, far above the net’s 18-49 demo target.

The Leno deal might also not bode well for NBC’s development slate, now that the net suddenly has an hour less to program in primetime.

News comes as NBC was set to announce Monday that Jimmy Fallon will take over Conan O’Brien’s chair on “Late Night” beginning Monday, March 2. Peacock was forced to hold off on that announcement, however, due to today’s other big news coming out of NBC, its massive executive purge and network-studio restructure. A smaller programming team now makes more sense, given the Leno deal.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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