Report: Leno Going Back to Late-Night Slot

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Last updated at 7:48 a.m. EST

The future of "The Jay Leno Show" was in question Thursday, even as NBC defended its prime-time talk-show star amid Web site reports the program will soon be canceled or shifted into late night.

An industry Web site called FTV declared that Leno's show would be canceled as soon as the Winter Olympics begin next month, when much of the regular programming on NBC will be pre-empted for Olympics coverage.

Then the TMZ Web site, citing undisclosed sources, said Leno's show would go on hiatus Feb. 1. Following the Olympics (which take place in Vancouver from Feb. 12-28), Leno will take back the 11:35 p.m. EST time slot he occupied for 17 years that ended last May.

This would make Leno's successor at "The Tonight Show," Conan O'Brien, "the odd man out," TMZ said.

CBS News correspondent Hattie Kauffman reports O'Brien took the reins of Jay's old show, but continually lost in the ratings to David Letterman's Late Show on CBS.

But late Thursday, The New York Times reported that NBC executives have a plan in the works to return Leno to 11:35 p.m. in a half-hour edition, pushing O'Brien to 12:05 a.m., followed by "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" at 1:05 a.m.

The revamped lineup would go into effect after NBC concludes its Olympics coverage, the Times reported.

NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks declined to comment on the report.

"I don't think anything worked for Jay Leno at 10," Craig Tomashoff, the Executive Editor of TV Guide, told "The Early Show". "Audiences didn't come, the show wasn't very funny, there was no buzz about it, except negative buzz."Since September, Leno has hosted an hour-long talk and comedy show weeknights at 10 p.m. EST. But his lackluster ratings in prime time have upset NBC affiliate stations who complain they are getting weaker lead-in audiences for their local late newscasts than from past NBC fare.

Michael Schneider, Television Editor for Variety Magazine, told "The Early Show" the NBC affiliates, "finally had enough and they were threatening to revolt. So NBC had to make a move now."

In a statement released Thursday, NBC said, "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. 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."

While this statement didn't clearly refute the Web reports that Leno's show would be dropped, a clarification from NBC executives denied "The Jay Leno Show" has been canceled.

Schneider told CBS that Leno himself, and the NBC affiliates, stand to gain the most from the switchup.

"He gets to move back to 11:30, which is where he dominated late night for 15 years... He just wants to tell jokes on television and he loves that 11:30 time slot. So if anybody won yesterday, it was Leno and the NBC affiliates, which now finally, hopefully, get a real lead-in again at 10:00."

During his monologue Thursday, Leno milked some laughs from the "rumor floating around that we were canceled. I heard it coming in this morning on the radio. So far, no one has said anything to me."

But if it's true, he joked, "it will give us time to do some traveling. I understand that (the) Fox (network) is beautiful this time of year."

"I don't think there is any truth to the rumors," he went on, referring to his frontrunner status in the ratings when NBC took him off "The Tonight Show."

"See, it's always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you're in first place," Leno cracked. "So we are fine. We are OK."

O'Brien made no mention of the scuttlebutt in his monologue.

Thursday night, NBC issued yet another statement expressing the network's commitment "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."

On Thursday, the rumors surrounding Leno's fate left industry analyst Shari Anne Brill mystified.

"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 of Carat USA.

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.