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Leno Feeling the Heat in Prime Time

Jay Leno, the former king of late night, is turning into the pauper of prime time.

Three weeks into NBC's addition of a weeknight Jay Leno Show, the comedian isn't leaving much of a mark. Since the TV season began Sept. 21, he has finished in last place every night, and Monday he claimed a lowest-yet 4.5 million viewers.

From the start NBC said it would be difficult for Leno to compete against first-run 10 p.m. ET/PT dramas, and it promised to judge the show on a year-round basis. Because Leno will air originals 46 weeks a year, the network hopes to improve its standings over time while benefiting from lower costs.

"The big test will be how he does when repeats begin, and if he sees a surge," says John Rash of ad firm Campbell Mithun. "If not, it's particularly troublesome."

Averaging 5.9 million viewers for the first two weeks of the TV season, Leno is down 25% from the dramas NBC aired in that hour last year, several of which were later canceled. Among adults ages 18 to 49, it's down 41%.

Ad buyers say they anticipated lower ratings for Leno and negotiated ad prices accordingly. But "more alarming than Leno's ratings is the result the show has had on the rest of the schedule," says analyst Sam Armando of major ad buyer Starcom Media.

The Tonight Show has slid since Conan O'Brien replaced Leno and is now drawing about 2.5 million viewers, half of Leno's late-night audience. CBS' David Letterman has taken a consistent lead, his first since 1994.

NBC stations in big cities have seen ratings drop for late newscasts, though affiliate chairman Michael Fiorile says he's "not really discouraged at this point. It's early."

Leno is doing best on Tuesdays, when reality series The Biggest Loser provides his biggest lead-in. But that night's formerly top-rated 10 p.m. drama, Law&Order: Special Victims Unit, has been hammered on Wednesdays.

"The issue is not Jay. It's our lead-in to Jay," says NBC TV chief Jeff Gaspin. "Jay Leno is still the right strategy if our 8-to-10 (lineup) is stronger."

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