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‘Leno Show’ Might Be on Way Out at NBC

Jay Leno's prime-time "experiment" may be cut short.

The former Tonight Show host, who spent 15 years atop the late-night ratings race, hasn't worked out at 10 p.m. ET/PT, hurting both NBC's overall ratings and the local newscasts that follow it on the network's affiliates.

Now NBC is weighing scenarios that would lead The Jay Leno Show to end its run as early as Feb. 11, on the eve of the Winter Olympics, according to network executives involved in the discussions.

In statements Thursday, NBC said the Leno Show has not yet been canceled, adding that while Leno's average audience of 5.8 million viewers has met expectations, the show has "presented some issues for our affiliates," who have complained about sharp declines for late local newscasts.

A meeting with stations is set for Jan. 21 in New York, in part to discuss a plan that could include shifting Leno back to late night or letting him walk away and paying out the remainder of his two-year contract.

NBC's decision to air the Leno Show at 10 five nights a week resulted from its promise five years ago to hand The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien and the network's need to prevent Leno from moving his show to ABC or Fox. But programmers acknowledge it also stemmed from the fourth-place network's prime-time woes and the lack of enough shows to fill its 22-hour weekly schedule.

Still, the network characterized the move as a bold experiment for recessionary times, and last summer newly installed NBC TV chief Jeff Gaspin called it a "smart risk," since the show is produced at a fraction of the cost of a typical prime-time drama.

"Going into the season, it was going to be a seminal shift in how to approach prime time," says analyst John Rash at ad firm Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. "And yet by any objective quantitative standard it failed."

And ratings for The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien are half those claimed by Leno in that late-night slot.

In prime time, NBC could replace Leno starting March 1 by shifting top-rated The Biggest Loser and Law&Order: SVU to later time slots and adding more reality shows and Dateline NBC to the schedule until the TV season ends in May.

For next fall, the network is developing 18 pilots for potential new series, the most in several years, that could be used to help fill the time.

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