2ND UPDATE: Leno’s Primetime Show Starts Fall 2009
(Includes details and quotes from the NBC/Leno press conference Tuesday)

UPDATE: My source was correct, and NBC will be announcing shortly this major primetime move to strip Jay Leno at 10 PM in valuable and visible primetime. It certainly makes sense because NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker couldn’t afford to let late night’s No. 1 host go to a competitor. So this way Jay Leno would stay at the network even though Zucker threw him under the bus five years ago by giving The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien in 2009. It keeps ABC (and also-rans Fox and Sony) away from Leno. And it may very well secure NBC’s 10 PM slot and Jay’s legacy. Or it could all go into the crapper if Leno’s 11:30 PM audience fails to follow him. Or if Jay doesn’t attract more eyeballs than his most recent average of 4.8 million viewers tantamount to a mere pittance for primetime. Or if Leno’s show cuts into Conan’s viewers which cuts into new Late Night host Jimmy Fallon’s audience because there’s 3 similar programs in a row (and 3 1/2 if you count Carson Daly’s abysmal half-hour). Suddenly, there’s talk show format fatigue. Conventional wisdom has it that late night viewers are creatures of habit, so the success of a major change like this is far from a given. But NBC’s beleaguered owned-and-operated TV stations and affiliates may like this new set-up since it could conceivably provide a stong lead-in for their local news shows. And with NBC’s primetime tanking, they may well prefer a known quantity like Leno to another scripted or reality 10 PM ratings disaster. Anyway, news of this NBC shocker began circulating in Hollywood this afternoon, real enough that my first source was getting frantic calls from rival networks about it. It comes right as NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker foreshadowed to an investors conference today that he’s considering cutting the number of hours and even the number of nights that the network airs programming. And after Zucker fired his top TV network/studio programming staff — but not Ben Silverman — Friday and this morning.

Since The Tonight Show is a cash cow, Zucker no doubt figures that Leno at 10 PM could be another. So NBC’s new slogan should be Nothing But Cheap. As for Leno, he and his powerhouse law firm Ziffren Brittenham have a win-win situation — another fat contract that, this time, shouldn’t include a non-compete clause. But this isn’t about money for Jay; it’s about respect from Jeff. (Leno has said publicly that he’s able to bank his entire Tonight Show salary and live on the hefty fees from his hectic personal appearance schedule.

Jay officially ends his hosting of The Tonight Show May 29th, and Conan O’Brien starts on June 1st. (Leno was going to be paid for all of 2009 by NBC even though he’s only working six months of it. He couldn’t start anywhere new until January 2010 because of a non-compete clause.) So much for everyone including me thinking it was a lock for Leno to move to ABC as Jimmy Kimmel’s lead-in. Now my NBC news today sounds like a game-changer. This is bonafide behind-the-scenes late night drama. But Leno has publicly told the press that he was “done” with NBC (and later claimed he was “misunderstood”) Here’s what Leno stated: “I am definitely done next year — with NBC. I’m not a beach guy, and the last time I was in my pool was to fix a light. Don’t worry, I’ll find a job somewhere.” He’s also been making merciless fun of NBC and Jeff Zucker on the air. I’ve been saying for some time that, judging from Leno’s animus towards Zucker, there was no way Leno would stick with NBC.

In recent months, it looked clear that Jay was ABC-bound and on the air there in 2010. I’d also heard from sources that Jimmy Kimmel was “OK” with having his time slot moved, and ABC extended its option with its current late night host to keep him at the network through at least 2010. At the Television Critics Association briefing no long ago, ABC Entertainment topper Steve McPherson stated “there’s absolutely room for both” Kimmel and Leno, and pledged that Jimmy would be fully consulted every step of the Jay negotiation — something Zucker failed to do with Leno. “I can’t believe they’re going to let this guy go at the top of his game,” McPherson said. “If that happens, I guess we’ll look at it at the time, and Jimmy will be involved in those discussions, and that will be that.”

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon started doing a Late Night Web show tlast night to work out the kinks because Conan was so hopeless when started hosting. Fallon will get TV time on the air following Leno as O’Brien takes a breather and then prepares to take over The Tonight Show. Meanwhile, how alarming for NBC that Late Late Show‘s Craig Ferguson has caught up with Conan ratings-wise.

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  9. Is Leno Starting to Hint About His Future?